Rosenberger’s Powerful Szymanowski Recordings

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SZYMANOWSKI: Masques. Études, Opp. 4 & 33. Mazurkas, Opp. 62 & 50 / Carol Rosenberger, pn / Delos DE 1635

In the 1970s, two amazing American women pianists made recordings of then-offbeat repertoire that would stand the test of time: Ruth Laredo’s Scriabin Sonatas (and small pieces) and Carol Rosenberger’s performances of Szymanowski’s Masques, Études and Mazurkas. In the case of the Op. 62 Mazurkas they were really unusual, since the music was long out of print by the time she recorded them (the composer’s nephew gave her a copy of the score).

But of course, high bars and alpine mountains are meant to be reached for and at least conquered if not surpassed, and both of these intrepid women have had their work seriously challenged in the last two decades. I now turn to Garrick Ohlsson for my Scriabin Sonatas and Martin Roscoe for most of my Szymanowski. Both have captured the sheer excitement of their forebears’ discovery of this repertoire while providing further refinements to their performance practice. But whereas Laredo’s Scriabin has remained in print more or less consistently over the past half-century, Rosenberger’s Szymanowski has been maddeningly elusive…until now. Delos has done us the favor of combining both of her albums of this composer’s work, made in Los Angeles in 1973 and 1976, into a neat double-CD package.

Listening to her performance of Masques, one is struck by the wide-awake approach of her playing. This is very different from the way most pianists perform Szymanowski nowadays, alluding to the French impressionist school which clearly inspired him. Rosenberger obviously wanted to make his Polish roots more evident in her interpretations, and she does so with surprising strength and wide-awake dynamics and phrasing. Nor was she alone in this view; the great Sviatoslav Richter played Szymanowski’s Mythes in concert with a similarly strong approach. The difference is that while others make the constant dissonances of his music sound diffuse and somewhat ethereal, Rosenberger made them sound like Stravinskian grotesqueries.

This is especially evident in the first CD, where Rosenberger attacks Masques with gusto and vigor. One almost envisions a weird sort of surreal puppet play in which marionettes are jerked around on strings, doing a bizarre dance to them. If you’re familiar with the recordings of others—particularly that of Roscoe—you may well be taken aback by this approach. But I have to say that I like it, despite its being different. These readings have a rich, redolent, deep-in-the-keys approach, bringing Szymanowski’s aesthetic closer to that of, say, Schumann or Medtner than to that of Chopin or Debussy, which is the modern approach.

I was startled, in the liner notes, to read of Rosenberger’s long and painful journey to a professional career. I hadn’t realized that at age 21, ready to start playing concerts, she was suddenly and cruelly struck down with polio. It took her ten years to even begin playing again and another five to build up the physical stamina needed for a career. Jay Joslyn, writing in the Milwaukee Sentinel, put it this way: “Polio destroyed every tool a pianist must have except heart and mind. With legendary dedication, Ms. Rosenberger overcame her musical death sentence. The insight and understanding she gained through this ordeal is apparent in the high quality of her musicianship.” Thus, though born in 1933, it was not until 1969 that she began her career in earnest, giving her first big concert tour in 1970. I was startled to discover that she is not only still with us but, happily, the present artistic director of Delos Records, having taken over that slot following the death of her long-time friend and patron, Amelia Haygood, in 2007.

Rosenberger carries the approach shown in Masques into the early (Op. 4) Études, which I admit I was not familiar with before hearing her performances. As a sidelight, her pianistic energy and enthusiasm here is not dissimilar from the way Ruth Laredo played Scriabin. Having never heard any of the early Polish recordings of Szymanowski’s music cited in the booklet, I can’t say how much her playing resembles theirs, but taken on its own merits it is clearly startling and makes a very strong impression. She doesn’t so much seduce you with the music’s delicacy as grab you with its strength. Being of Polish descent, I can tell you that this is how the mazurka rhythm is supposed to go. A mazurka is not a dainty dance by any means if you’ve seen native dancers perform it! It’s active, foot-stomping and energy-inducing; Think of it as a 3/4 cousin of the polka. Even Chopin, the wispiest and most Romantic of Polish composers, wrote pretty lively mazurkas.

But then again, you can’t escape the fact that Szymanowski was attempting to completely change the mazurka, so a slightly softer approach, such as that of Martin Roscoe, is certainly viable as well. But when I think of the mazurka and remember how it is danced, Rosenberger’s performances sounds more authentic to me.

Bottom line: if you already have Roscoe’s complete recordings of Szymanowski’s piano music, you may not need this release, but if you particularly want to hear the Mazurkas played with a bit more gusto Rosenberger’s set is a must.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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