Classical Music Home

Welcome to Naxos Records

Keyword Search
 Classical Music Home > Naxos Album Reviews

Album Reviews

See latest reviews of other albums...

Michael Barone
Minnesota Public Radio, February 2010

One of the foremost proponents of the ‘new’ energy in Polish music at the beginning of the 20th century, Szymanowski’s style evolved from an excellent imitator of the post-romantic ravishings of Richard Strauss (in Opus 12) to a pithier, lyric neo-classical voice (Op. 60), either of which provides a thoughtful and satisfying listening experience, particularly in this gorgeously recorded and committed performances. Explore!

Steve Schwartz, February 2010

Revelatory. This CD closes out the distinguished Szymanowski symphonic cycle from Polish conductor Antoni Wit (Symphonies Nos. 2 and 3 are available on Naxos 8.570721. I will go so far as to call this disc nothing less than a revelation to me on Szymanowski. It mixes three early works with a late one, the Fourth Symphony. In general, I haven't been a fan of Karol Szymanowski's early period, a mixture of Richard Strauss and, slightly later, Claude Debussy. It's not that the music is terrible or badly-written, but much of it strikes me as second-hand, unfocussed, or unnecessary.

However, Wit's performances have begun to change my mind. Obviously, he believes in these scores. Under Wit, the Concert Overture - heretofore a pallid imitation of Strauss to me - becomes nearly as exciting as Don Juan, its obvious model. The First Symphony - previously aimless and seemingly endless, lost in a thicket of post-Wagnerian noodling - has drive and purpose. Although the earliest piece here, the Study in b-flat minor, originally for solo piano and orchestrated by the important Polish conductor and composer Grzegorz Fitelberg, shows something hauntingly individual, which I contend Szymanowski suppressed as he strove through the first two phases of his career. One tastes a bit of folk song, although nearly swamped in a late nineteenth-century sauce...Szymanowski wrote the Fourth Symphony toward the end of his life, when his piano technique along with his health had degraded quite a bit, but he still wanted something to play, if nothing else, for the performance fee. He recognized that he hadn't written a full-fledged concerto, but an orchestral work with an occasionally prominent piano part. Nevertheless, I consider this one of his masterpieces, certainly his best symphony…Wit does a wonderful job. He currently competes with Simon Rattle and Karol Stryja (predictably). Rattle gives a good account, even though virtuoso Leif Ove Andsnes is largely wasted. Wit does just as well, and for a lower price.

All in all, a distinguished contribution to the Naxos Szymanowski series.

Gary Lemco
Audiophile Audition, December 2009

The solo violin (Ewa Marczyk) enjoys a concertante role…The Finale: Allegretto con moto grazioso, brings the violin back in misty colors, almost a distant cousin of the Berg Concerto. A romantic impulse emerges from the weirdly chromatic amalgam; even in the midst of mocking riffs, passion still persists. The final pages become momentarily diatonic just before the final, tympani-laden chords that announce another moment of mystical rapture.

The huge crescendo eventually quiets down and departs in a world that shimmers, sings, dances, and buzzes with delicate textures that enjoy Spanish rhythms and Ravel’s and Bartok’s pungent harmonic syntax. An aggressive keyboard cadenza ushers in heroically inflamed fanfares that end the movement. The Andante unites the piano, flute and violin in a gentle serenade, an evocation of rivulets, as the tympani quietly thunders in the background. Bartok’s night music seems nigh, maybe one of Stravinsky‘s neo-Baroque scores. Wit and Broja raise the level of intensity…

Jean-Yves Duperron
Classical Music Sentinel, November 2009

If you were to hear the Concert Overture for the first time, without knowing what was playing, you would swear that it is an orchestral work by Richard Strauss, so strong is the influence. So strong in fact that you could imagine Richard Strauss sneaking into Szymanowski’s home at night and revising his manuscripts. In particular, the way Szymanowski scored for the Brass section in his early works is pure Richard Strauss, but with more muscle and determination.

Symphony No. 1 also bears the influence of Strauss, but this time Szymanowski’s own personality and nervous energy take over, and like his 2nd Symphony previously reviewed on this site, exhibits a keen sense of structure and development. Imagine if you may Richard Strauss living an extra 20 years. He himself would probably have sounded exactly like this.

Symphony No. 4 is a ‘Symphonie Concertante’, with a piano being the prominent instrument. By this time in his creative life, this music is all Szymanowki. Much more infused with mystery and adventurous harmonic twists, but still very formal in structure and form. Emotion and logic all rolled into one.

As with the previous release of Symphonies 2 and 3 [8.570721], Antoni Wit lives this music and releases every ounce of energy out of every note in the score. The Naxos recordings produced in Warsaw are excellent in every way, resulting in a full-bodied and three dimensional soundscape. Well done!

Adrian Corleonis
Fanfare, November 2009

Of major interest are the two extant movements of the 25-year-old Szymanowski’s First Symphony, a bloated “monsterpiece” clotted with indigestions of Wagner, Reger, and Strauss. That is, the work is a curiosity rather than something one accepts at face value. One marvels, for instance, at its relentless contrapuntal involvement—enunciated throughout by stentorian brass…The young composer’s lurid geste of ongoing cataclysm—as if accompanying all-too-predictable flicks with titles like The Antichrist and The Thing That Ate Warsaw—affords the connoisseur, at least, tongue-in-cheek satisfactions. Wit and the Warsaw Phil turn in a taut performance, laced with genuine menace…Oddly, the earlier Concert Overture is a more persuasive piece, perhaps because it had but one model…This, too, receives a rippingly intense reading.

With the “Symphonie concertante” and Fitelberg’s orchestration of the once-popular Étude in b♭ one encounters Wit’s latest sensuously parsing manner, which almost ran aground the Second and Third Symphonies (Naxos 8.570721). With Broja at the keyboard, the Fourth turns tentative—rather than teasing and allusive—as Wit’s direction shuffles the literal with the hectic, and Szymanowski’s glowing orchestral colors run to blowzy and garish…A spacious aural perspective nevertheless renders Szymanowski’s impacted detail with startling immediacy and clarity. De rigueur for mavens.

David Fanning
Gramophone, August 2009

An impressive addition to the Naxos survey of symphonic Szymanowski

Naxos here completes its second recorded cycle Szymanowski’s orchestral works. And that apparent duplication seems less remarkable once you hear the passionate playing and exceptional musical understanding of the Warsaw Philharmonic under their general and artistic director.

The early Concert Overture, son of Rosenkavalier and proud of it, is resplendently played here, only at rare moments craving a more glamorous sound stage. And the over-heated two-movement First Symphony, which the composer himself described as a “contrapuntal-harmonic-orchestral monstrosity” and withdrew after its premiere, emerges as far more purposeful and less rebarbative than I can remember from any of the admittedly few rival versions that have come and gone over the years.

As a listening experience the Fourth Symphony is initially somewhat more problematic, in that the opening pages (surely the model for Bartok’s Third Piano Concerto) suffer from slight intonation problems between the concertante piano and the orchestra. But with a bit of acclimatisation, helped by the firm and affectionate shaping of the performance, this proves to be liveable with. Jan Krzysztof Broda seems to grow in stature through the rhapsodic slow movement, and he never loses the thread in the finale’s Raveian and Prokofievian deviations.

All in all, it would take significantly greater financial outlay to find anything better than this, and even then the differences would be marginal.

John Allison
BBC Music Magazine, July 2009

The main work on this new release in Naxos’s Szymanowski series is the Symphony No. 4, also known as the Symphonie Concertante for piano and orchestra. It receives the slowest recorded performance I know, yet one that works on its own terms—so convincingly that it shows how much interpretative latitude this wonderful piece can take. At the opening, with timpani tolling away underneath, the piano traces a languorously decorative line. In the middle movement, the flute solo sounds especially dreamy, and the finale, inspired by folk music from the Tatra mountains, takes on raw vigour while allowing the pianist Jan Krzysztof Broja to show his virtuosity…The Symphonie Concertante is one of the composer’s leaner works, but the same cannot be said for the remaining (and much earlier) pieces here. The powerful Concert Overture owes much to Richard Strauss, and this vividly recorded performance shows how exhilarating it can be. Szymanowski himself disowned his First Symphony as a ‘Monstrum kontrapunktyczno-harmoniczno-orchestrowe’, but it is nevertheless well worth hearing, especially when performed—like everything else here—with such conviction by Antoni Wit and the Warsaw Philharmonic.

Dan Morgan
MusicWeb International, June 2009

‘Another triumph for Maestro Wit and his busy Warsaw band’, I wrote in my review of Szymanowski’s Second and Third symphonies [8.570721]. At least we haven’t had to wait too long for the First and Fourth, one still evolving musically; the other a good example of the composer’s settled, more mature style. And then there are the fillers, which make for a logical, well-balanced programme.

So, how do you out-Strauss Strauss? Well, Szymanowski does it rather well with the rampant brass and thrilling amplitude of his Concert Overture. In a blind test I wonder how many people would think they were listening to Don Juan? Yes, the piece may be derivative but it’s much more than just a pale imitation. Szymanowski certainly captures the excitement of a large orchestra in full spate, Wit working the sluice gates for all he’s worth. Ideally the sound could be broader and go deeper but I was quiet content to be swept along by the Straussian flood. A cracking piece and a fine start to this disc.

The First Symphony is built on the same generous lines as the overture—the opening of the first movement is a mix of Wagner and Strauss—but underneath those harmonies one might discern something more unyielding. It seems the composer was becoming less enchanted with—and by—late German Romanticism, so perhaps it’s not surprising that under those surging climaxes there are tougher rhythms at work; sample the passage in the first movement that begins at 5:38, for instance.

Beneath the tumult of the second movement are the usual Straussian tunes, but what really impresses here is Wit’s unerring pace and sense of structure, both of which make the symphony ‘hang together’ most convincingly…This is a work that cries out for a full-bodied recording, preferably on SACD, but the only other version I can find in the catalogue is another Naxos release, also from Poland (8.553683).

As for the Fourth Symphony it inhabits a different sound world entirely—listen to the timp strokes and spiky piano tune at the start of the first movement. There are the same eruptive passages, which alternate with writing of unexpected inwardness and lyricism. The pianist, Jan Krzysztof Broja, is well placed and recorded, and the engineers have done a splendid job capturing the work’s more unusual sonorities; just sample the strange, twilight passage that begins at 5:58. I did feel the sound lacked weight in the overture but it’s more than acceptable here, with plenty of breadth and depth.

The recording is just as impressive in the quiet, almost imperceptible, opening to the second movement. This is music of rare tranquillity, underpinned by the gentlest of pulses; that said, the piano ushers in a more assertive central section that builds to a broad, well-proportioned climax (no empty rhetorical flourishes here). In the music that follows the flute and piano are particularly alluring, the latter signing off with a short downward phrase that takes us straight into the martial Allegro. These are the insistent rhythms and rougher textures we hear in Harnasie, for instance, a world away from the overstuffed music of Strauss and Wagner. Surely this is much closer in sound—and spirit—to Prokofiev, especially in those glittering piano figures and orchestral gallop to the finish.

The Study in B flat minor inhabits another world again. Orchestrated by the Polish conductor Grzegorz Fitelberg (1879–1953) it’s a wisp of a thing, light, airy and most sensitively played by the Warsaw band. It’s a perfect coda to a rewarding programme and proof, if it were needed, that Maestro Wit and his orchestra are setting new standards in this repertoire.

A splendid addition to what is now an indispensable cycle., June 2009

The Concert Overture (1905), which clearly displays the influence of Wagner and Richard Strauss on the young composer, is a somewhat more interesting work than the similarly influenced Symphony No. 1 (1907), which Szymanowski later dubbed a “monster.” That is an overstatement—the work is not especially long (19 minutes; the Concert Overture runs 14) or especially monstrous in structure or harmony—but neither is it a very individualized piece; there is nothing especially compelling about it. Symphony No. 4, “Symphonie Concertante” (1932), is considerably more interesting, including a prominent piano part (well played here by Jan Krzystof Broja) and combining elements of symphonic structure with ones of a concerto. One thing that both these symphonies have in common is the use of solo violin and solo viola (Ewa Marczyk and Marek Marczyk, respectively). Another is the extent to which they seem to echo other composers: No. 4 has some of the flavor of Stravinsky. The CD concludes with one of Szymanowski’s most popular works, a piano study heard here in an orchestration by Grzegorz Fitelberg. The CD as a whole shows some new directions for the symphony in the 20th century, but of the works here, only the Symphony No. 4 really showcases Szymanowski at his best.

Phil Muse
Atlanta Audio Society, June 2009

Antoni Wit, at the helm of the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra, continues a distinguished survey of the music of Poland’s Karol Szymanowski (1882–1937) with Symphonies Nos. 1 and 4. This completes the cycle of the composer’s four symphonies that was begun with the 2008 release of Symphonies 2 and 3 (Naxos 8.570721). With the orchestra at the top of its form performing the composer’s luxuriantly scored music, these budget-priced releases are hard to resist.

Szymanowski himself came to repudiate Symphony No. 1 in F Minor of 1907 as being “too Wagnerian,” though the influence of Richard Strauss may be more evident to the modern listener. To be sure, it is a taut, exuberantly scored work in two movements, orgiastic and virtuosic in character, that could hardly be bearable if it were any longer in duration (18:40 in the present recording). Wit and the orchestra do it full justice, as they also do Szymanowski’s similarly explosive Concert Overture in E Major of 1905.

As many another young composer has discovered, you can’t very well play tennis without a net. Thus Szymanowski came to make his peace with sonata-form long before the time of his Symphony No. 4, Op. 60 of 1932. While the results are noticeably more satisfying than in his First Symphony in terms of harmonic resolution and a sense of purpose and direction toward which the composer was building, he lost none of the essential beauty he strived for in his luminously scored music. The Fourth is sometimes described as a “Symphonie Concertante” because of the great latitude given to the piano and violin solos, performed here by Jan Krzysztof Brola, piano; and Ewa Marczyk, violin. Broadly stated melodies with a certain Polish flavor make this work memorable. Antoni Wit does a superb job building the climaxes in a work requiring clarity as well as power from the interpreter, and the sound engineering allows him plenty of room to maneuver.

We finish with Szymanowski’s Piano Study in B-flat Minor, Op. 4, No. 3, in the orchestration by his contemporary, Grzegorz Fitelberg. Melodic as well as poignant, it makes for a fitting conclusion to the program.

Jeff Simon
The Buffalo News, May 2009

If you were to make it a contest to determine the composer currently in most acute need of radically upward reassessment, the winner by many leagues would probably be the stylistically restless (and occasional homosexual provocateur) Karol Szymanowski (1882–1937), whose musical precursors began with Wagner, Reger and Richard Strauss, migrated to Scriabin, then to Ravel and Debussy, then to Stravinsky and finally settled into a delicious, folk-derived idiom related by Slavic blood to the contemporaneous music of Béla Bartók. For all that, there’s nothing shamelessly derivative about any of it. It merely marks a restless, protean and extraordinary talent—among other things one of the virtuoso orchestrators of his time. Luckily, all manner of performers and conductors everywhere are concurring with Simon Rattle’s assessment of him as one of the greatest composers of the 20th century and proving it on disc. Wit and the Warsaw Philharmonic are even more atom-smashing interpreters of Szymanowski than you’d think they’d be, with the disc of the early Straussian Symphony No. 1 and final-period “Symphony Concertante No. 4” for piano and orchestra, one of the most powerful, budget-priced discs of any music to come down the pike in months. Not quite as stupendous but still remarkable is Wit’s recording of the “Harnasie” from Szymanowski’s final period.

James Manheim, May 2009

Polish composer Karol Szymanowski was touched by many of the stylistic currents that crossed Europe in the early twentieth century, but a good performance of his music is one that emphasizes the Polishness he brought to his music even as he adopted ideas from the outside. This one, part of a fine series from Naxos exploring the works of this somewhat underrated composer, is superb. Featured here are the beginning and ending works of Szymanowski’s symphonic career, entirely different in character. The Symphony No. 4, Op. 60, “Symphonie Concertante,” takes its nickname from its prominent piano part; it is not a sinfonia concertante in the Classical sense, with multiple solo instruments, but a symphony with a prominent solo part. The treatment of texture and the use of the piano might be likened to Stravinsky, but the overall effect is different: the music is not dry but lyrical, with a definite streak of the Polish folk music that always seems to lurk under the surface in Szymanowski’s music. Pianist Jan Krzysztof Broja is on top of every detail, and the subtle balances between piano and orchestra that are characteristic of the piece are beautifully handled. The Symphony No. 1 in F minor, Op. 15, which Szymanowski first ridiculed as a“Monstrum kontrapunktyczno-harmoniczno-orchestrowe” and then later completely disowned as too Wagnerian, is a less important piece, but isn’t dull in the least and is not, paradoxically, wholly Wagnerian in effect. The symphonies are bookended by a little-known but colorful Concert Overture, Op. 12, and an orchestral version of the early and very Chopin-like Study in B flat minor, Op. 4/3, better known in its original piano version. Thoroughly enjoyable from start to finish, and a good place, along with its companion recording featuring the second and third symphonies [8.570721], to start with this composer.

David Hurwitz, April 2009

As previous issues in this series have shown, when Antoni Wit and his forces are in top form in the music of Szymanowski, they’re pretty much unbeatable. At last, we have a complete symphony cycle in performances that will serve as the reference for all newcomers. Szymanowski repudiated his First Symphony on stylistic grounds (too Wagnerian), and it certainly does not represent the direction he ultimately took. But it’s still great fun: a big, bold, scant 20 minutes of colorful scoring and exuberant musical ideas. The Concert Overture is even more so. It’s pure Richard Strauss, only better in some respects--packing all the ebullience of Don Juan or Ein Heldenleben (or both!) into a relatively concise curtain-raiser.

The performance of the Symphonie Concertante, one of Szymanowski’s greatest works, is superb. Pianist Jan Krzysztof Broja plays the solo part beautifully. He’s got the chops for the big moments in the outer movements, but it’s his delicacy at the start of the central andante that’s most memorable. Wit typically directs the orchestra with remarkable clarity as well as power. The finale in particular never has sounded less “clogged” texturally, while the very natural engineering always leaves plenty of room for the sound to expand and fill the hall at those ecstatic climaxes that are such a hallmark of this composer. A splendid release!

David Denton
David's Review Corner, March 2009

Unkindly disowned by Szymanowski in his later life, the Wagner-influenced First Symphony comes in total contrast to the Polish nationalism of the Fourth. Just twenty-five when he completed the two short movements, the work runs parallel, and in many ways similar, to Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht, often rising to erotic passages of sensuality. In that genre it is a powerful statement, made all the more so by this superb account from the Warsaw Philharmonic conducted by Antoni Wit. Twenty-five years separated this from the Fourth—also known as the Symphonie Concertante—by which time Szymanowski’s wanderlust was at an end and he had returned to his homeland. Financial difficulties certainly turned his attention to its creation, adding a not too difficult piano part so that he could take part for a little extra income. This time in three movements, it is still a highly coloured score with French Impressionism creeping in during the quieter moments. It is certainly a symphony that you will find readily likeable. The disc opens with the early Concert Overture, a most invigorating score that should feature in the familiar repertoire. Jan Krzysztof Broja is the admirable pianist, the release being completed with Grzegorz Fitelberg’s orchestration of the Study in B flat minor, originally for piano and a score of unremitting beauty. Marvellous sound quality, and I am sorry for those who already have other recordings of the symphonies, as you need to put those to one side and buy this new release.

Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group