SZYMANOWSKI: Piano Works Vol. 1 = Nine Preludes, Op. 1; Serenade No. 7, Op. 55; Métopes: Three Poems for Piano, Op. 29; Sonata No. 3 for Piano, Op. 36 – Anu Vehviläinen, piano – Alba

by | Jan 5, 2011 | Classical CD Reviews | 0 comments

SZYMANOWSKI: Piano Works Vol. 1 = Nine Preludes, Op. 1; Serenade No. 7, Op. 55; Métopes: Three Poems for Piano, Op. 29; Sonata No. 3 for Piano, Op. 36 – Anu Vehviläinen, piano – Alba ABCD 296, 61:43 [Distr. by Albany] ****:

I’m not sure that Karol Szymanowski has gotten his entire due as a modern musical master, though certainly he’s very well represented on disc. Whereas he was once represented almost entirely by his orchestral music and his late choral masterwork the Stabat Mater, now his complete piano music and his most important chamber works are available from a variety of sources. As a one-disc survey of Szymanowski’s piano music, this CD from Alba usefully collects the central works from the first two periods of the composer’s career. If Finnish pianist Anu Vehviläinen had managed to give us some of Szymanowski’s Polish dances or mazurkas, this disc would have taken us from A to Z in Symanowski’s career. But since the program is titled “Piano Works Vol. 1,” I assume a later volume will bring us music from Szymanowski’s third creative period.

What we have on this disc are two of the composer’s most important piano works: Métopes and Sonata No. 3. Métopes was inspired by an architectural feature that Szymanowski saw on display at Palermo, a metope from the temple of Selinut. A metope is a recessed square or rectangular section in a Doric frieze; this area is often decorated with painted or sculpted figures. Symanowski chose to “paint” three metopes featuring women who Odysseus meets on his famous travels: the Sirens, Calypso, and Nausicaa. The Sirens are represented by their lilting, alluring Siren song along with watery sounds that portray their danger-fraught surroundings. Calypso’s is the music of alternately nostalgic and passionate longing for Odysseus, whom the gods finally convince her to let go from her island home. Nausicaa finds Odysseus sleeping on the beach at Phaeacia during a frenzied game of ball played with her servant girls; that wild gaiety informs Szymanowski’s bright final metope. In these highly-colored tone poems, the strange lapidary piano writing of Scriabin meets the polytonal sound world of the musical Impressionists, especially Ravel.

The same sound world obtains in Szymanowski’s Piano Sonata No. 3 written two years later, in 1917. Sounding very much like Scriabin, Syzmanowski’s work, like a typical Scriabin sonata, starts with a genuine sonata-allegro first movement but then achieves an un-Scriabin-like coherence by using themes cyclically, with constant metamorphosis, throughout the four movements. The two themes of the opening are even identifiable in the concluding fugue. This hard-edged, tautly-argued fugue announces Symanowski’s independence as well, hinting at his later adoption of neo-Classical features, which show up in works of his last years, such as the Fourth Symphony and Second Violin Concerto.

Quite different in sound and inspiration are Szymanowski’s Nine Preludes, his first published work, written between the ages of fourteen and eighteen. Here, the simple Romantic mood setting of a Chopin prelude meets the late-Romantic chromaticism that Szymanowski was already exploiting. The limpid piano sound owes much to Chopin’s style as well, though filtered through a fin-de-siècle musical consciousness. Again, Scriabin, who emulated Chopin in his early works, comes to mind. Yet Szymanowski creates a unique identifiable style based on the Chopin model.

While recordings of Szymanowski’s piano music aren’t legion, there are at least two complete cycles available, from Martin Jones (Nimbus) and Martin Roscoe (Naxos), as well as respected recitals from the likes of Carol Rosenberger and Marc-André Hamelin. In fact, if you wanted to have a convenient two-disc sampling of Szymanowski’s piano works, the current CD plus Hamelin’s Hyperion recording of the Mazurkas, Polish dances, and Valse Romantique would do quite nicely.

Anu Vehviläinen, who in her graduate studies concentrated on the music of Szymanowski, comes into more or less direct competition with the critically acclaimed recording by Piotr Anderszewski on Virgin; the Virgin disc offers Three Masques, Op. 34, in place of the Nine Preludes. Anderszewski is a somewhat more volatile player than Vehviläinen, providing bigger dynamic and rhythmic contrasts and thus more inherent drama. Vehviläinen proves more thoughtful, which pays dividends in Op. 1, in the Calypso movement, and in the poignant Adagio of Op. 36. Certainly, she’s no less technically secure than Anderszewski, producing the big resonant chords that sound from the bottom of the keys as convincingly as all those feather-light tremolos and trills. Given an excellent recording that powerfully conveys the sound of her Steinway grand with an attractive warmth which says “recital hall” rather than “studio,” I find Vehviläinen’s disc very recommendable, especially since it gives us so fine a snapshot of Szymanowski’s growth in the first two decades of his career. I’d like to see what Volume 2 brings.

— Lee Passarella

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