Szymanowski’s Early Songs in a New Release

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SZYMANOWSKI: 6 Songs, Op. 2. 3 Fragments from Poems by Jan Kasprowicz, Op. 5. Łabędź (The Swan), Op. 7. 4 Songs for Voice & Piano, Op. 11 / Rafał Majzner, ten; Katarzyna Rzeszutek, pn / Dux 1369

These are not the only recordings of Szymanowski’s Op. 5, but otherwise I was unable to track down alternate versions of the other early songs on CD. Most Szymanowski songs available are later ones, i.e. his Love Songs of Hafiz, Op. 26, the Op. 22 Buntelieder, the Op. 49 Children’s Rhymes and his Kurpie Songs Op. 58. If the material presented here is not the full flowering of his great genius as a composer (he wrote them between the ages of 18 and 22), they are nonetheless interesting, since they seem much closer in feeling and construction to contemporary Russian songs—Tchaikovsky or Rachmaninov—than to any of Chopin’s output.

Yet this is not to say that they are not original; on the contrary, though their feeling is closer to Rachmaninov in melodic structure, his surprising and interesting use of chromatic movement is not. He was already feeling his way towards an entirely new aesthetic, even different from, say, the songs of Rachmaninov’s younger colleague Nikolai Medtner. They also call for a much wider range from the tenor than either of those composers, often dropping into the low range and generally avoiding a consistent exploitation of the upper range, which a feature of Russian songs of that period.

Sadly, the booklet has no texts at all, not even in Polish. Happily, most of the texts are available, most in Polish only but some translated to German, on Enily Ezust’s magnificent LiederNet Archive (http://www.lieder.net/lieder/get_settings.html?ComposerId=5907). I would once again urge all lovers of art songs to PLEASE donate a few dollars to her website. It is a treasure-trove for those of us who cherish and value art songs in any language by virtually all composers, major and minor. Google Translate does a credible job of providing the English texts of these songs using Emily’s website as a source.

Tenor Rafał Majzner has a slightly nasal but otherwise attractive timbre, and he does a credible job of modulating his tone to give expressive interpretations of this material. It’s difficult to tell if his voice has real power or resonance or if this is just the result of close miking and enhanced reverb, which one can clearly hear on the recording (and which I felt was a bit too much), but he draws your attention to the words and music, which is what he is supposed to do, and his diction is as clear as a bell. High praise also goes to pianist Katarzyna Rzeszutek, whose crisp, incisive attack and sensitive phrasing make a perfect match for Majzner’s well-modulated voice. As the songs progress, we hear the piano accompaniment becoming more and more complex (such as in “Rycz burzo,” the last of the four Op. 11 songs), and she takes it all in stride, making the difficult sound easy.

It almost boggles the mind that Szymanowski struggled constantly throughout his career to have his music played and heard while lesser composers skated to classical popularity. Granted, his later music, which evokes both Debussy and Scriabin (one of his musical idols), is modernistic and somewhat difficult for average audiences, there were other composers who wrote in a similar vein who received international accolades. I still think it was because he was Polish. Composers of that nationality were almost expected to write more easily digestible music, and that Szymanowski would not do. Great art is almost always created in a vacuum. We tend to forget that Béla Bartók was not appreciated as a composer until relatively late in life, and then only due to the exposure given him by such well-known musicians as Benny Goodman, Fritz Reiner and Artur Rodziński. Szymanowski had no such champions; when Carol Rosenberger recorded his piano music in the mid-1970s, it was virtually unknown in the West. Most of the pieces she played were no longer in print, and many had never been published outside Poland.

There is an almost consistent Slavic feeling of melancholy in most of these songs, too, which was guaranteed to make them unappealing to listeners looking for beautiful melodies and upbeat moods. Nonetheless, for those who love Szymanowski’s music as much as I do, this is a fascinating and valuable release.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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