PADEREWSKI Piano Works (Radosław Sobczak)
These two anthologies of Szymanowski’s and Paderewski’s piano music arrived just in time for the centenary of Poland’s independence, celebrated on the same day as the Armistice. Paderewski played a crucial part in securing his nation’s inclusion as the 13th point of Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points peace statement, and he went on to serve as Poland’s Prime Minister for 10 months.
All the pieces in Sobczak’s programme belong to the creative period just before these events. From the charming Chopinesque miniatures, including the popular Minuet in G, to the passionately rhetorical Sonata, Sobczak shows clear affinity with and affection for the music, and his account of the Sonata certainly surpasses Jonathan Plowright’s in bringing vividness to its Lisztian bluster. But neither in this monumental opus nor in the smaller pieces is he a match for Kevin Kenner. Although the dry recording is not in Sobczak’s favour, that challenge is really no more than Kenner’s in getting the best from his mellow 1925 instrument (the composer’s own) in an over-resonant acoustic. Where Kenner triumphs is in the subtlety, even wit, of his rubato, which allow the music to breathe and move forwards. Sobczak, by contrast, leaves it standing still or, worse, limping, with his rapidly predictable exaggeration of first beats.
Exaggeration and excess are certainly major ingredients of Szymanowski’s musical language, and the question for interpreters is whether to exaggerate them further or to temper them. Martin Roscoe takes the latter approach, favouring intellectual control and long-line structure. Sobczak allows more spontaneity and spasmodic sensuality, which certainly enliven the Chopin-meets-early-Scriabin Preludes; and the other miniatures on the disc also survive, even prosper. However, in the already hyper-contrapuntal and orchestral Second Sonata, the same strategy makes the music feel like a claustrophobic steam-room. The combination of technical strenuousness and dry recording makes for a sound that is generally on the thin side and notably harsh in louder episodes, giving us neither the fluidity and facility of Hamelin nor the drama and fury of Richter, who, despite playing to a background of coughs and sneezes, turns the sonata into a breathing and living organism. Sobczak’s habitual stretching of phrases and rhythmic distortions work against him and the music, particularly in the opening theme of the second movement, where Richter brings out the Scriabinesque élan at the same time as preserving a degree of lilt, saving the music from drowning in its own sweat.