Zimerman plays Szymanowski – Preludes, Mazurkas – DG

by | Nov 7, 2022 | Classical CD Reviews | 0 comments

SZYMANOWSKI: Piano Works = 4 Preludes, Op. 1; Masques, Op. 34; Mazurkas Nos. 13-16, Op. 50; Variations on a Polish Folk Theme, Op. 10 – Kristian Zimerman, piano – DG 486 3007 (8/10/22) [Distr. by Universal]****: 

The occasion of Polish composer Karol Szymanowski’s 140th birthday inspired pianist Kristian Zimerman, to complete a recording project of Szymanowski’s piano music actually begun in Copenhagen (Masques) as early as 1994 but previously unissued. In June 2022, Zimerman travelled to Fukiyama, Japan to record in a concert hall designed by friend Yasuhina Fukiyama. Zimerman praises the acoustics of this venue for its clarity, where “every note is in a cushion of warm surroundings.” In terms of musical tradition and influence, Zimerman follows the legendary virtuoso Artur Rubinstein (1887-1982) in his admiration for Szymanowski’s stylistic growth beyond Chopin and Scriabin into an individual whose modal and chromatic syntax absorbed the Polish national impulses into his personal expression.

Zimerman opens with a group of four Preludes, Op. 1 (1900), the composer’s original offerings for publication. In B Minor, Andante ma non troppo, the No. 1 rings more of Scriabin than Chopin, lyrically moody. The No. 2 in D Minor, Andante con moto, limps along slowly, a combination of Chopin and what might pass as Rachmaninoff. Introspective, reminiscent as well of a Chopin nocturne with a thickly chromatic bass line, the piece casts a nostalgic aura. No. 7 in C Minor (Moderato) and its successor, No. 8 in E-flat Minor (Andante ma non troppo), likely date from 1896 and cast a clear evocation of late Chopin and early Scriabin, respectively passionate and delicately intimate, although latter assumes more grandeur as it evolves.

The three Masques, Op. 36 (1916) present a mature style in Szymanowski, The three character sketches ooze refinements from Stravinsky, Scriabin, and most eminently, Debussy.  “Sheherazade” shimmers with nervous exoticism, bursting suddenly with chromatic, layered drama. Two motifs dominate, intertwined and ornamentally embellished. The music becomes suggestive of Eastern, dance impulses and thick, lushly “orchestrated” harmonies, as though Szymanowski were imitating Richard Strauss, cross-fertilized by the Beethoven “fate” motif. “Tantris le Bouffon” stems from the irony of Stravinsky’s Petrushka, here in the form of a parody of Wagner’s Tristan, a brilliant toccata in Debussy style. Artur Rubinstein, the dedicatee of Stravinsky’s 3 Scenes from Petrushka, had introduced the score to Szymanowski. The play on which the music is based, by Ernst Hardt (1908), subverts sentimental associations with the Medieval legend. The last section proves no less ironic, the “Serenade de Don Juan” mimicking, quasi improvisando, a poor attempt to tune a guitar, a la Debussy’s “Interrupted Serenade,” and then pompously delving into excessive pathos. Zimerman’s renditions exact any number of tonal nuances from a vigorous palette, fiercely etched on a Hamburg Steinway captured by Producer Helmut Burk.

Szymanowski published his 20 Mazurkas of Op. 50 over a span of years, 1926-1931. Highly inventive, after Chopin, on the rhythmic principles of the Polish national dance form, especially that found in the Highlander regions of the Tatras mountains around Zakopane, where Artur Rubinstein met the composer. The No. 13 Moderato is an extended piece, rife with the use of whole tones and tritones exploited by Debussy and Stravinsky. The succeeding Nos. 14 (Animato e elegante e grande), 15 (Allegretto dolce),and16 (Allegramente) indulge in tritones, stamping motifs, and “regional” harmonies that often sound like Bartok but with explosive moments from Liszt. Chopin still manages to exert his presence, though the syntax has become dissonant, percussive, and filtered by irreversible influences from Russia, France, and gorale (Carpathian Highlander) music. 

The Variations on a Polish Folk Theme (1904) rank as young Szymaniwski’s ambitious opus in the manner of Chopin (Lento mesto, ma poco agitato, Variation 3) and Brahms (the Agitato, Variation 2). Composed in Warsaw, the piece derives its main theme from Jan Kleczynski’s On the Music of Podhale (1888), followed by 10 variations and a grand, four-voice, fugal finale marked mit Humor, as a token of Beethoven’s influence. The piece opens in B Minor, rather melancholy, 4/4, Andante doloroso rubato. Soon, Szymanowski indulges in Chopin and Scriabin shifts of meter, venturing into 5/4, with the first nine variants set as ternary expressions in miniature. Expressive Variation 6 and 7 take us into B Major as the two hands, in the latter piece (Più mosso), synchronize 9/16ths and 6/16ths in bell tones. Variation 8 presents a mordantly lugubrious, funeral march in G Minor. Zimerman casts this variant well with Mussorgsky flourishes. The penultimate variation 9, Più mosso (Allegro), returns to the relative B Major, here to serve as a potent introduction to the massive finale, an intricate melding of elements of prior variants and quite long, exploding in triumph and wit. Zimerman imposes a sterling, multifarious panoply of colors, virtuosic but caressed with nuances. A long-delayed labor of love, this album, and now to be cherished as in its spirited devotions.

–Gary Lemco 

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