Szymanowski’s Piano Music Beautifully Played by Roscoe

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THE COMPLETE PIANO WORKS OF SZYMANOWSKI / 20 Mazurkas, Op. 50. Metopes, Op. 29. 4 Studies, Op. 4. Piano Sonatas Nos. 1-3. Variations on a Polish Theme. Masques, Op. 34. Fantasia in C. Etudes, Op. 33. 4 Polish Dances. Prelude & Fugue in C-sharp min. 9 Preludes, Op. 1. Variations in B-flat min., Op. 3. 2 Mazurkas, Op. 62 / Martin Roscoe, pianist / Naxos 8504045

Having recently listened to a single disc of Szymanowski’s piano music by another pianist, I was disappointed by that artist’s prosaic approach to the music. Everything was played in a matter-of-fact manner. There was little or no light and shade in the performances. The pianist could have been playing Czerny exercises for all the difference it made.

In frustration, I went to the Naxos Music Library where, lo and behold, I discovered this set (in its original four individual CDs) by British pianist Martin Roscoe. And I was simply blown away. Everything that was wrong in the other pianist’s performances was unerringly right in Roscoe’s. He provided light and shade to the Chopin-influenced 9 Preludes, which was Szymanowski’s Op. 1, but also an underlying muscularity when the music called for it. I was hooked, and began listening to the rest of this set in earnest.

And what a treasure-trove this music is, and particularly his interpretations of them! I had reviewed, several years ago, two discs of his Beethoven Piano Sonata series and found them very solid and well-played but not quite on the exalted level of Annie Fischer, Walter Gieseking or Michael Korstick. But let’s face it, the Beethoven Sonatas have about 40 times more competition; one can even make a case for the complete sets of Schnabel, O’Conor, Sheppard and Gulda to place alongside Roscoe’s. Not so in the music of Szymanowski. I did, however, listen to the complete sets of Martin Jones on Nimbus, which was good but not quite as imaginative as Roscoe, and Sinae Lee on Divine Art, who was musically and stylistically correct but too cool and distant for my taste.

Checking online, I’ve discovered that other critics also like his Szymanowski set but have reservations that I didn’t have. Some complained that Roscoe rushed his way through the Mazurkas and the Third Piano Sonata. I didn’t mind this bit of impetuosity; they gave the music the feeling of a live performance, and besides, that’s the tempos to which mazurkas are actually danced. What amazed me the most was Roscoe’s tremendous ability to maintain complete clarity of texture while still imparting a feeling of mysticism to the music. This is an extraordinarily difficult balancing act, because clarity and mysticism are sometimes incompatible qualities. Pianists who excel at the latter do not always achieve the former; on the contrary, their goal is to blur and obscure as much as possible to create an “aura of mysticism.”

Martin RoscoeAnd I will go further. In my opinion, Martin Roscoe is a far greater interpreter and more interesting pianist than the much-vaunted Martha Argerich. To my ears, all Argerich has to offer is a blistering keyboard attack and somewhat well-bound phrases. She plays nothing from the “inside.” Roscoe plays everything from inside the music, and this is what made this Szymanowski series so consistently attractive.

I must warn the listener, however, not to take the composer’s titles for certain works too literally, particularly the sonatas. Despite his occasional bow to musical form, particularly in his use of fugues and canons, most of the music in his three piano sonatas sound much more fantasia-like to me. Indeed, the same thing applies to those mazurkas. An underlying mazurka beat is always discernible, but Szymanowski purposely goes outside the form, shifting tempos and obscuring the keys in such a manner that one is wrapped up in a swirling mélange of notes. The point I am making is that at times Szymanowski’s music approaches the kind of complex, swirling sound created by Sorabji. Of course, it was impossible for Szymanowski to have any knowledge of Sorabji before the late 1920s, when the Farsi-British composer first came to the fore, but since he continued writing music up through the late 1930s there is a chance that he might have been impressed and even influenced to some extent by the younger man’s aesthetic.

Szymanowski also took a very individual view towards the theme and variations form. His Variations on a Polish Theme and Variations in B-flat minor don’t even sound like variations at times, but rather like entirely new pieces of music built over the same harmonic sequence. Listening carefully to these works, one hears his musical mind becoming impatient with the theme-and-variations form the way it had been established and continued up to his time, thus his music goes off into a nether-world of its own.

The four CDs that make up this set were, of course, originally issued individually, and as usual with record companies in general and Naxos in particular, the music is out of order chronologically. In fact, his Op. 1 Preludes don’t show up until CD 4, and the set of 20 mazurkas Op. 50 are split up over the four CDs. I’m not particularly upset about this, however, because no composer really expected a pianist to sit down in a concert and rattle off all 20 pieces in a “set” in order. I seriously doubt that they were even written sequentially, let alone all at the same time. But this does delay the listener’s appreciation of where Szymanowski started, which was essentially as a lover of Chopin, before he discovered Debussy, Scriabin, Stravinsky and all those Middle Eastern mystics.

The bottom line is that Szymanowski’s piano works are not easy listening with the possible exception of the Op. 1 Preludes and Op. 4 Studies. His musical mind was always running off the tracks into melodic-harmonic combinations that pull the listener away from the music’s starting point, and as time went on even his starting-points were melodically and harmonically dense and obscure. This is advanced listening for minds that are willing to take the plunge with him, and I greatly admire Martin Roscoe for having the courage to interpret the music with the right feeling while maintaining clarity and transparency.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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