SZYMANOWSKI: 12 Etudes. Op. 33; Masques, Op. 34; 4 Etudes, Op. 4; Metopes: Trois Poemes, Op. 29 – Cedric Tiberghien, piano – Hyperion CDA67886, 74:36 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi](2/3/14) ****: 

The music of Karol Szymanowski (1882-1937) remains something of a hothouse flower, emanating a distinctly unique bouquet comprised of Chopin, Scriabin, Debussy, Reger, and various Eastern influences. Pianist Cedric Tiberghien (rec. 10-12 March 2013) explores the seminal piano works of Szymanowski, alternately poetic, introspective, and texturally dense, often permeated with bravura effects. Szymanowski’s wide-ranging interests embrace literature and mythology, Polish nationalism, and classical architecture. Each of these impulses finds a degree of expression and occasional collision in Szymanowski’s rarified harmony and idiosyncratic sense of form.

Tiberghien begins with the 1916 set of 12 Etudes, many of which rival Webern or Berg for their condensed brevity. Debussy’s own set of Etudes had appeared in 1915, and they may well have set the tone for Szymanowski’s epigrammatic efforts. Bluesy bitonality opens the set, and the No. 2 exploits the interval of the major second. Nos. 3 and 4 seem to dovetail each other, presenting diatonic melodic riffs suddenly jarred by harmonies that sound rather “Eastern.” The liquid textures of No. 4 land on E-flat Minor.  The No. 5 beckons to Chopin and Scriabin at once. No. 6 has a martial, truculent spirit, demanding big chords and percussive strokes. Even more askew, the No. 7 (Burlesco) beckons to Wagner’s Tristan myth; the music deliberately creating a lurid atmosphere of grotesquerie. Some deep harmonies appear but contrapuntally veiled or moving in broken sequences and staccato explosions. The Serenade de Don Juan employs Spanish harmonies and effects, likely influenced by Ravel’s Alborada del gracioso.  Another study in obsessive patterns, this etude fixates on D-flat as a lone point of egocentrism. A knot of fourths shimmers and shakes, ushering in guitar effects and a kind of magic atmosphere that nods at Liszt. The intense climax, however, has more in common with the Scriabin Etude in D- sharp Minor, Op. 8, No. 12, ecstatic and subversive simultaneously.

The Four Etudes (1900-1902) reflect the young composer’s affections for Scriabin and Chopin, chromatic and voluptuous, brilliant showpieces.  The E-flat Minor ripples in liquid motion, suddenly quite passionate. The G-flat Major demands lightning motion in light touches, rife with angular color. The metrics divide into asymmetrical groupings to add to the oddly disturbing sense of balance. The No. 3 in B-flat Minor bears the designation of an “andante in the mode of a sad song.” The cantilena proceeds over repeated chords, so the result sounds like a hazy form of Rachmaninov.  Though indicated in C Major, the last etude superimposes A-flat Minor as a competitor, short melodic phrases set against triplet eighths. The restive figures move as if Scriabin were in dialogue with Debussy, with the C Major tonality eventually triumphant.

Tiberghien concludes with the set of three Metopes (1915), the title taken from the square panels in a Classical, Doric frieze. Likely, Debussy’s L’Isle joyeuse factors into the sound world of L’ile des Sirenes, whose watery trills and tremolos rise over sustained pedal to form a seductive haze woven from melismas and ornamental arabesques written over three staves. Tiberghien extracts myriad water-colors from his responsive Steinway, courtesy of Recording Engineer David Hinitt. Like Liszt’s Jeux d’eau a la Villa d’Este, the intricate chromatics miraculously produce a transparent, luminous texture.  Next, the model of Ravel’s Ondine sets the tone for another water-piece, the hermetically-sealed island of Calypso, the tremolando-laden enclosure that held Odysseus for seven years. The sudden onrushes of energy might signify our hero’s attempts to widen his world’s limits. The overt sensuality of the Odysseus legend comes forth in Nausicaa, a musical evocation of the daughter of the King of Phaeacia, who danced for the shipwrecked hero. The hesitant first steps eventually erupt into a flurry of choppy, melodic or trickling figures, cascading in high dudgeon. The dance fuses with a motif from Calypso, as if two women contested for the favors of Odysseus. High detached chords signify a kind of epilogue, itself played parlando and dying out very slowly.

—Gary Lemco