Karol Szymanowski

12 Etudes/Masques/4Etudes/Metopes

Cedric Tiberghien


To indulge Szymanowski is to engage a world within a world, with much overlapping of ideas and sources, of senses and responses, an aesthetic carnival often with its roots in the artistic milieu with which he is familiar, a composer open to the new and the contemporary, which in part explains his enduring appeal.

It is also true that you cannot listen to Szymanowski without tracing the influence of Wagner, Reger and Scriabin, but there is a peculiarity to the origin of his compositions that is, frankly, all his. Szymanowski had his roots in both the Romanticism of Western literature (the examination of the self in the context of nature) and the Romanticism of Polish literature (visionary power of the artist in response to the loss of national independence).

However, as a stylist he neither favoured the West over the East, but absorbed the tumultuous changes going on around him: he admired Stravinsky’s personal revolution and experimentation as much as Bizet’s deadly passion. But it is the shadow of Beethoven which is longest in the Metopes, an anthropomorphic mise en scene explored by the travails of Ulysses, and which I enjoyed most via the pianism of Cedric Tiberghien.

The meshing of the land and the sea in Homer’s Odyssey is replicated by Szymanowski’s  melismatic adornment and arpeggi as if sponsored by warring Gods, coalescing into a moveable feast of sound, and this audible relishing of the plight of Ulysses, who is always between worlds, is manifest in a Ravel-like repetitiveness in Calypso, though the suffocation of the latter is replaced by the hedonistic and sinuous Nausicaa.

The audible relishing of the chameleonic Szymanowski is a picnic with Masques: because he composed habitually at the keyboard, he is accused of often playing hostage to his whims, like a writer bent over a blank page with a hangover in need of a good editor. Yet Sheherazade and Tantris le Bouffon have their moments, though I was more at home with the third movement of Masques, La Seranade de Don Juan, because I am partial to a rondo, adequately deployed here by Szymanowski, as Don Juan is like a dog chasing a tail, his own and others. There are memories of Ravel from which the rondo is drawn. A soundtrack for the night, no less.

There is superb detailed playing from Tiberghien on this Hyperion recording, and extensive and informative notes. Szymanowski is an acquired taste but as dispatched here by Tiberghien and explored by Hyperion, the fervour spills over. The recording opens with 12 Etudes Op 33, memorable for the brevity of each, rather like an abstract painting on a trolley, viewed through a microscope

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