Szymanowski Choral Works

Author: 
Michael Oliver

Szymanowski Choral Works

  • Stabat Mater
  • Litany to the Virgin Mary
  • Symphony No. 3, '(The) song of the night'

I've no idea how long Rattle has been conducting Szymanowski, but a good musical detective ought to be able to work it out on the basis of this collection. In one sense the evidence says 'not very long'; there's a huge enthusiasm here, a missionary quality that bespeaks the recent convert. On the other hand the care over matters of balance, the knowledge of just those points where Szymanowski's complexity needs very careful handling if it's not simply to blur into opacity, suggest a conductor who has been there before and knows the dangers. On the side of 'four or five years at least' should also be set Rattle's evident enjoyment at discovering analogies with other and more obviously 'modern' composers: Ravel, obviously, but also Berg; even a recollection that one of Witold Lutoslawski's formative experiences was being knocked sideways by Szymanowski's Third Symphony?
So on the whole I'd opt for 'four or five years at least', with perhaps a conscious decision to delay recording this music until the circumstances were right. What else could the musical detective discover? That the CBSO Chorus have (while waiting?) made good use of a Polish coach: they sound not only thoroughly at home in the music but in the language too. I suspect also that the clincher on the decision to go ahead with this recording might well have been Rattle's realization that in Elzbieta Szmytka he had a soprano who might have been born to sing Szymanowski's pure, floated and very high-lying soprano lines (in the Stabat mater and the Litany; in the symphony he uses a tenor, which was Szymanowski's own first choice).
The result is very fine indeed: one of the most beautiful Szymanowski recordings that I've heard. And yet 'beautiful Szymanowski' isn't all that hard if the orchestra's good enough and the conductor capable. Rattle's insistence that all of the music be heard, its bones and sinews as well as its flesh, its urgency and passion as well as its deliquescent loveliness, makes for uncommonly gripping Szymanowski as well. He reminds one of the ancient roots, religious and national, that are tapped in the Stabat mater and the Litany, and of how much more there is to the Third Symphony than voluptuous yearning: solemnity, for one thing, and a fierce ardour that can indeed knock you sideways. The choice of soloists for the Stabat mater is interesting: alongside Szmytka's radiant purity are Quivar's throaty vibrancy and Connell's weighty darkness. Not a matching trio, but I like the contrast; it adds to the rich differentiation of sonority that Rattle draws from his chorus and orchestra. Garrison in the symphony is a touch hard and strenuous, less enraptured than one or two of the Polish tenors (and sopranos) who've recorded it, but he's a musicianly and likeable singer. The recording, made in Symphony Hall,Birmingham, is outstanding: lucid, rich andspacious, with tremendous and perfectly focused climaxes.'

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