Poles Apart: New Recordings of Szymanowski, Zelenski and Zarzycki, reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

szymExoticism –The Music of Karol Szymanowski. Jerzy Kaplanek, violin; Stéphan Sylvestre, piano. Marquis.

First among Polish composers who lately are gaining the reknown their music deserves is Karol Szymanowski (1882-1937).

Two questions. Why does he deserve to be better known? Why is this collection of duets for piano and violin called Exoticism?

About Szymanowski’s deserts, it’s the originality of his voice, the impressive musical vocabulary and endlessly varied syntax he created to say musical things.

I like his eclecticism. The Sonata in D minor Op. 9 (1904), opens in a mood of Wagnerian romantic melancholy, but lightly, in the manner of a cocktail piano warming up, noodling around for the right atmosphere. When he finds it in the Andantino, you start to hear hints of urban elegance recalling Ravel, and the slightly bent angles of Debussy. Jerzy Kaplanek, first violin of the Penderecki Quartet, makes sweet, witty fun with the frequent pizzicati parts, and in the Finale, both Kaplanek and Stéphane Sylvestre give over to tempestuous passion, but in the way of Gershwin show tunes, where the lyrical romance is backed by a sense of drama  larger than life. There are moments when this work seems overwritten and slightly repetitive, a fault that does not show up in the later pieces.

The Nocturne and Tarantella Op.28 (1915) usher the exotic element in. After an entrée of eerie nachtmusik, the music goes all swirly Scheherazadish, amps up to boisterous Spanish Gypsy rhythmics à la Carmen that spin into a virtuosic perpetuum mobile before the violin floats the diaphanous melody skywards.

Mythes Op. 30 (1915) is more Debussyesque shimmer in the piano and high modal violin that sings the melody of an Arcadian paradise lost. Sylvestre’s slowly tolling piano extenuates the theme, like a muscle stretched to its verge, while Kaplanek imitates the varied intensity of a tropical aviary that foretells the writings of Oliver Messaien.

Messaien’s name brings us to the Second World War, a drama that Szymanowki did not live to experience. Nonetheless, his is the music of one who has overcome mental prisons, and that is another reason why Szymanowki will continue to garner repeated listening.


The Romantic Piano Concerto, Vol. 59: Zelenski, Zarzycki (2013). Jonathan Plowright (piano), BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Lukasz Borowicz (conductor). Hyperion.

Pianist Jonathan Plowright has added recordings of two more Poles apart from the mainstream concerto repertory to his long list of Polish reputations in recovery: Aleksander Zarzycki (1834–1895), and Wladyslaw Zelenski (1837-1921). This is the 59th volume of Hyperion’s Romantic Piano Concerto Series.

The best thing on the disc is not a concerto but a filler: Zarzycki’s Grand Polonaise in E flat major, Op. 7. The soloist’s opening flourish sounded to me  delightfully like a boogie-woogie riff, followed by a marching band trumpet fanfare. Conductor Borowicz’s tempos are light, knees-up, and enchanting. The most sweeping passages of the melodic theme are teasingly not-quite-Chopin, but Plowman’s bridging piano-work is totally intriguing. The intensely lyrical Concerto in A flat major Op. 17 in two movements has an elusive, moody beauty and a brilliant development.

Zelenski’s Piano Concerto in E flat major, Op. 60 (1903) is technically demanding, lively, lyrical, terpsichorean, and offers Plowright a chance to show what he can do. Zelenski’s music may be mentioned in the same breath with composers such as Franck, Grieg, Lizst and Saint-Saëns. That said, after two listenings, I have yet to discover his unique flavour.






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