With this release – the forth – Simon Rattle is becoming the number one champion of the music of Karol Syzmanowski (1882-1937). This composer is a tough one to peg, as he migrated stylistically over the course of his career, and particularly those works penned before and after the First World War. This was a time of shedding the influence of Wagner, so pervasive at that time, and absorbing the more static, impressionistic music coming from France and elsewhere.
The Love Songs of Hafiz, based on Persian poetry, deliberately seek to emulate some of the oriental exoticisms so present in much of the new impressionist music, though by no means proving slavish to the concept. Though the music is certainly colorful and evocative, it by no means mimics the sort of tone-painting that Debussy was engaged in at the time. But word-painting is another matter, and the shimmering strings and delicately delicious way that Szymanowski depicts the emotions and color inherent in the poetry is marvelously effective.
Only three of the six Songs of a Fairy-tale Princess were ever orchestrated. His sister Zofia wrote the words to this dreamy, lovelorn sequence of childlike paeans to love, and the composer chooses to set the rather tricky piece for mezzo-soprano, full of scales and melismatic passages that require great care in execution.
Physically and culturally cut off from Poland because of the outbreak of the Russian revolution in 1917, Szymanowski turned to the music if the Tatra Mountains for inspiration in his choral ballet Harnasie. Eight years in the making, the piece tells of the abduction of a bride on her wedding day by the leader of a group of bandits, Harnas. The music describes the bride’s pre-nuptial feelings, and the wild dances at the wedding. It was the composer’s greatest success, and most popular (if one can say that about him) work. Today, we don’t hear much about it, and this recording should go a long way in rectifying this, for Rattle and his Birmingham forces let loose a torrent of fury and Carpathian energy that surely would have pleased the composer.
The sound is excellent, as always the case in Birmingham, with great clarity and separation among the forces, who perform with zest and commitment. This is a must for Szymanowski lovers and high on the list for everyone else as well.
— Steven Ritter