szymanowski mythes bis

Karol Szymanowski (1882-1937)
Mythes Op.30 (1915)
Violin Sonata in D minor Op.9 (1904)
Romance in D major Op.23 (1910)
Notturno and Tarantella Op.28 (1915)
La Berceuse d’Aïtacho Enia Op.52 (1925)
Sueye Park (violin)
Roland Pöntinen (piano)
rec. 2021/22, Kulturkirche Nikodemus, Berlin
BIS BIS-2652 SACD [68]

Every collector will have ‘gaps’ in their carefully assembled collections of repertoire they really should know.  I was quite surprised to realise that apart from the miraculous Mythes Op.30 – a unique and genuinely stunning work if ever there was one – the violin and piano music of Karol Szymanowski was one such gap for me.  So listening to this new BIS disc recorded in that label’s characteristically gorgeous DSD/SACD surround sound has been something of a voyage of discovery.  And what a voyage and what discoveries they have proved to be.  Clearly I cannot make any comparisons with existing versions – for example I see that the CD on Hyperion from 2009 by Alina Abrigimova and Cédric Tiberghien has had rave reviews, includes all of the music on the new disc plus three of the Paganini solo Caprices quirkily (re)arranged for violin and piano by Szymanowski.

However, taken in isolation and as a newcomer to most of the music here I have to say this new recording is a stunning discovery for me both in terms of repertoire and performances.  I had not heard violinist Sueye Park before and her playing is genuinely sensational both in terms of technical address and stylishly sensitive musicianship.  On piano she is accompanied by Roland Pöntinen who must be one of BIS’ most recorded artists – together they make a very impressive musical partnership.  The liner note is written by Stephen Johnson who succinctly describes the uniquely sensual and intoxicated sound-world Szymanowksi creates.  But more than that Johnson explains the composer’s upbringing and resulting refuge in the philosophical worlds of Nietzsche, Ancient Greece and Islamic poetry.  Perhaps the greatest clue to the resulting ecstatic music is Nietzsche’s “The Birth of Tragedy” which Johnson summarises as follows; “…art reaches its greatest heights when Apollo (the god of order, poise, sunlight) embraces Dionysus (the god of intoxication, abandonment, darkness) in a transcendent synthesis..”  This combination of control and release, Impressionism and hyper-Romanticism gives some clue to the seemingly contradictory musical world of Szymanowski.

The disc opens with the justly acclaimed Mythes Op.30.  In three movements lasting 21:32 in this performance this work references a wide range of musical and extra-musical influences.  Each movement’s title indicates the literary influence of Ancient Greece; La Fontaine d’Arethuse, Narcisse, Dryades et Pan.  The challenge for the performers is to find the balance between the extreme technical demands of the work and the need for a sense of expressive freedom and executional ease.  Park and Pöntinen excel in this, producing passages of indolent languor or playful virtuosity.  I like very much the way Park changes her technical address between the Impressionistic freedom of the 1915 Mythesand the Brahms-influenced Romanticism of the 1904 Violin Sonata in D minor Op.9.  Park adopts a weightier tone and a fuller vibrato.  The three-movement Sonata at 22:35 is only slightly longer than the Mythes but it has the feel of a more traditional less individual work.  That said, for a composer in his early twenties it is still a remarkable and impressive composition.  The sonata had to wait until 1909 for its first performance when it was premiered in Warsaw by Paweł Kochański and Arthur Rubinstein.  

The meeting with Kochański proved transformative – certainly as far as his composing for violin was concerned and directly led to the development of the unique style of writing that infuses the Mythes Op.30 and the violin concerti – which remain two of the finest 20th Century concertante works for violin bar none.  Kochański’s death at just 47 from cancer robbed the world of one of its genuinely great and most influential players – astonishingly he was invited to be concert master of the newly formed Warsaw Philharmonic in 1901 aged just 14!  Clearly Kochański’s technical ability and – one assumes – his performing style inspired and informed Szymanowki leading directly to the later masterpieces.  Of course this awareness of the technical possibilities of the violin developed alongside Szymanowki’s wider artistic development so no surprise to see that the Op.30 Mythes are part of an extraordinarily creative phase that includes the remarkable Symphony No. 3 “Song of the Night” Op.27The Love Songs of Hafiz, 8 Songs Op.26, the Métopes, 3 Poèms Op.29 as well as the Notturno and Tarantella Op.28 included here.  This work again explicitly reveals the empowering influence of Kochański.  Johnson again provides a perfect description; “…the Nocturne exudes a febrile exotic atmosphere [while] the Tarantella is a typical expression of physical intoxication produced by abandonment to the spirit of dance.”  

Again Park and Pöntinen are able to make light of the extreme technical demands of this music and thereby focus on the expressive and musical aspects of this impressive work.  Interesting to hear this work – with its close compositional relationship to the Mythes – and how Szymanowski uses essentially a similar technical palette to achieve such different expressive ends.  Park once more moulds her playing to reflect this with the energetic and muscular Tarantella played with thrilling attack and dynamism as opposed to the fluidity and heightened sensitivity of the other work.  The recital is completed by two brief but also very attractive works; Romance in D major Op.23 and La Berceuse d’Aïtachio Enia Op.52.  The latter especially is another elusive gem – it has the adjacent opus number to another Szymanowski masterpiece – the Op.53 Stabat Mater.  The lullaby of the title is more troubled and uneasy than one might expect and again Szymanowski makes substantial demands of the players within its 4:24 duration.  I like the choice to end the programme with this work – not only is it the latest work but the ambiguity of the emotional landscape allied to technical demands seems to be a perfect microcosm of this ever-individual, intriguing and rewarding composer.

The entire disc is a genuine triumph with every element from playing to recording to presentation serving the music and the aesthetic behind the music to perfection.  At 68:15 this is a reasonably generously filled disc – perhaps the inclusion of Kochański’s own arrangement of the Chant de Roxanne from King Roger would have been a bonus.  I see there is a Brilliant 2 disc set which includes some other brief works which would be of interest to the completist but the three key works are included here.  I continue to scratch my head how I have managed to ‘miss’ these works for so many years – especially given my enjoyment of all of the other music by this composer I know well.  However, I cannot imagine a better introduction to this extraordinary music than this.

Nick Barnard

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