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Jim Leonard, March 2010

Fans of Polish fin de siècle composer Karol Szymanowski are likely to warmly embrace this disc by Antoni Wit and the Warsaw Philharmonic. Wit and the Polish musicians deliver energetically conducted, enthusiastically played, and thoroughly persuasive performances of his relatively frequently recorded ballet pantomime Harnasie and pantomime Mandragora, plus the infrequently performed incidental music to Act V of Prince Potemkin. Wit has long been acknowledged as one of Poland's finest conductors, and his association with Szymanowski's music is extended and honorable. He shapes the folk-like Harnasie into a convincing whole, holds the more phantasmagorical Mandragora together despite its discursive nature, and gives Prince Potemkin a sharply pointed interpretation that makes the best case for the brief work. As always, the Warsaw Philharmonic…digs into this music with a commitment that is hard to fault.

Carl Bauman
American Record Guide, July 2009

This new Naxos CD of Karol Szymanowski immediately goes to the top of the list for all three works. Granted that only Harnasie has been recorded much, but Antoni Wit as a conductor has the proper feel for Szymanowski’s rather eclectic style. He also has probably the finest performing forces, the best sound, and the cheapest price. (Good notes, too.) Harnasie lasts some 35 minutes and is classed as a ballet-pantomime. It uses a chorus and tenor soloist in addition to the orchestra. It is set in the mountains in southern Poland and involves the kidnapping of a bride on her wedding day by Harnas and his band of robbers. It was written between 1923 and 1931, when Szymanowski first visited Zakopane in the Tatra Mountains and established a residence there. He was inspired by the rich folk music. The score is beautifully written and immediately became popular after its Prague premiere in 1935.

Mandragora is a short ballet written just before its 1920 first performance. It was designed to be included as a pantomime in the third act of Moliere’s Bourgeois Gentilhomme. It is based on a commedia dell’arte intermezzo. It includes elements of musical parody and is the most immediately accessible work here.

The music for the fifth act of Prince Potemkin was written by Szymanowski in 1925; the play was by Tadeusz Micinski, who also wrote the text for Szymanowski’s opera, King Roger. It lasts just over 10 minutes and is also based on Tatra Mountain folk music themes. It was still in manuscript when the composer died in 1937.

Gary Higginson
MusicWeb International, June 2009

Here’s a set of rare works indeed by a composer who is no longer a bit of an interloper in the recording world. He is coming to be regarded as one of the 20th Century greatest masters. And how good to have this music played by an orchestra under a conductor who have such a down-to-earth understanding of 20th Century Polish Music and of Szymanowski in particular. They have also recorded the complete output of Lutosławski.

Let’s start with the big work ‘Harnasie’. Perhaps, like me you are coming to it for the first time. Composed in the composer’s third period—the time when he was most interested in the folk music of Poland—this ballet tells a story vaguely reminiscent of Peer Gynt. A bride is abducted on her wedding day, not by an individual lover but by a tribe of Tatra Highlanders—the Harnasie. This allows Szymanowski a chance to indulge his love of the dances and melodies of the Tatra Mountains and to pour his ideas into this ballet score. He rented a house for many years in the region and often heard and noted the music he found around him. The final result is a red-blooded, joyous and at time frenetic and heady mixture of Bartók, Borodin and Ravel (of La Valse?). Its thirty-five minutes flash by. There are marches, drinking songs and all sorts of dances and goings-on. There are therefore certain sung sections—Szymanowski himself and Jerzy Rytard wrote the text—which come off very well from a very authentic sounding choir. Naxos have not, indeed apparently could not supply the texts due to copyright reasons. However Keith Anderson in his booklet notes does not even offer us a scene by scene résumé, although we have several performer biographies and photographs and an extended biographical essay on Szymanowski which is very handy.

The volume control I have found must be set at a much higher level than usual to get the full benefit of the intoxicating orchestration. The opening flute solo needs to be quite loud and that will prevent you from constantly making adjustments.

We often talk of Szymanowski’s influences as Scriabin, or Debussy or Polish folk dances and the ballet Mandragora demonstrates his magpie tendencies further. Written during a transitional phase in the composer’s career here we can find Stravinsky, even Borodin (again) and in part 2, I think Manuel de Falla. Stravinsky is also in the mix, especially Petrushka, a score Szymanowski much loved and lies behind the work’s commedia dell’arte story line. There is even a part for what seems to be an off-stage bel canto tenor or is he just distantly recorded. It is wonderfully performed by Alexander Pindarak who also has a few rather curious, spoken words in part 3. Like Petrushka it is at times so descriptive that cartoon music comes to mind. The whole piece is one scintillating musical parody. It is here wonderfully played with many, many details clearly articulated with Szymanowski’s unique language clearly understood by orchestra and conductor.

Composed midway between these two masterpieces comes the unpublished, brief ‘Prince Potemkin’ incidental music. The play in question was by Szymanowski’s friend Tadeusz Miciński. He had worked with him before on for example the text of the 3rd Symphony and his exotic, oriental ideas had inspired King Roger the work immediately preceding this one. Potemkin inhabits a world of half-lights and mystery—slow and magical both in harmony and orchestration. It includes a mezzo-soprano and again, a chorus in its second half. Despite its impressionist atmosphere it also uses a Tatra folk-tune, here to quote Keith Anderson “transformed for an evocative dramatic purpose in music that has a valid existence apart from the play.” A-men to that.

As well as the essay and photographs of the performers we have their career profiles which are given generous space. I find this to be an excellent disc both in repertoire and in performance and if it were full price I would hunt it out. As it is, it will fit neatly into a Saturday shopping trolley and give you hours of fascinating listening.

Arnold Whittall
Gramophone, June 2009

Wit shows his wisdom in powerful performances of Polish theatre music

The Naxos Szymanowski series continues its estimable task of placing relatively familiar major works in appropriate but less familiar contexts. The ballet Harnasie is a powerful complement to the opera King Roger, giving similarly Dionysian subject-matter a very different dramatic setting. Szymanowski’s joyous embrace of folk idioms in Harnasie, and his relish for exploring them in ways which retain certain points of contact with his earlier late-romantic opulence, invites comparisons with Bartók and Janáček in the years after the First World War. But Harnasie has a very personal, Polish aura to it, well projected in this robust yet technically secure account by Antoni Wit and his Warsaw forces, including brief contributions from the veteran yet still strong-voiced Wiesław Ochman.

George Dorris
Ballet Review, June 2009

Antoni Wit and his strong Warsaw forces show their affection for this music, while the sound and also the notes are good.

Phil Muse, May 2009

Antoni Wit, artistic director of the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra, continues his splendid survey of the major works of Poland’s Karol Szymanowski (1882–1937) with the much-neglected ballet-pantomime HarnasieHarnasie represents Szymanowski’s apex. He throws some unusual instruments, including blocks, snare drum, whip and xylophone into an orchestral mix already characterized by his unique feeling for rich, complex harmony. The rhapsodic nature of his music is much in evidence in the tableau “The Harnas and the Girl.”…The other works on this Naxos release are the pantomime Mandragora and the incidental music for the play Prince Potemkin. The former, designed for inclusion in Act 3 of Molière’s play Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, is surprisingly witty and imaginative for a composer in whom I had not previously noticed a sense of humor. As a sparkling neo-classical work, it begs comparison with Richard Strauss’ Bourgeois Gentilhomme Suite and Stravinsky’s Pulcinella. Antoni Wit and the WPO really seem to enjoy this scintillatingly scored music that engages all the resources of the orchestra and includes darker sounding music for a change of pace, possibly referring to the ancient association of the Mandrake root (Mandragora) with black magic.

The Prince Potemkin music did not engage me at first, possibly because I was expecting choice satirical writing. (Evidently, this is not the Potemkin who pulled the wool over Czarina Catherine’s eyes with his pre-fabricated model villages, giving rise to the expression “Potemkinize.”) This music, wholly serious in character, impressed me upon further auditions by Szymanowski’s characteristically luminous writing for the strings, a plangent oboe solo, and an eloquent choral section that is very much an essential part of this score.

John-Pierre Joyce
MusicWeb International, April 2009

This latest release in the Naxos Szymanowski series covers the composer’s music for the theatre. It focuses on his ‘ballet-pantomime’ Harnasie, coupled with two lesser known works: the short ‘pantomime’ Mandragora, and incidental music for Act V of Prince Potemkin, a play by the poet Tadeusz Miciński.

The Harnasie represented here packs a bold punch, with the Warsaw Philharmonic and conductor Antoni Wit faithfully tracing the work back to its roots in the folk sounds and dance rhythms of the Tatra mountains. The playing throughout has an intense, even threatening, muscularity which is well placed in this tale of peasant robbers and bridal kidnap. The brass section in particular plays with a sense of strident menace, while the woodwind excel in the archly seductive passages, which so clearly link this ballet with the lush, exotic sound world of Szymanowski’s opera King Roger, completed a few years earlier. The best example of this comes towards the end of the first tableau, with the Tatra Robbers’ Dance (track 5), leading to the rousing wedding scene at the start of the second tableau (track 6), where the Warsaw Philharmonic Choir make a forceful entry alongside shimmering percussive effects. Also worthy of note is the beautiful, yearning tenor solo in the final epilogue, accompanied by solo violin…The middle piece in the recording, Mandragora, is a slight, divertimento-style work. Composed as an interlude for Molière’s Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, it shows the influence of Stravinsky. Persistent, alternating rhythms and driving percussion (including piano) are reminiscent of Petrushka, while the inclusion of a florid, Italianate tenor solo and light dance movements recall Pulcinella…The final, shortest, piece in the recording is a revelation. The ten-minute incidental music to a play based on the life of Prince Potemkin is much closer to the sound world of King Roger. Again, the absence of a full explanation of the music’s role in the play in the sleeve-notes fails to place it in context. However, the piece can be listened to on its own as a short, intense tone poem. Brooding strings and plaintive woodwind invoke a dark, threatening mood, while distant trumpet-calls hint at a military theme. A hypnotic chorus and mezzo solo further deepen the rich tonalities of the piece…

BBC Music Magazine, April 2009

Both works are delivered here in authoritative performances—a marvellous addition to this much-praised Szymanowski series.

David Hurwitz, March 2009

In terms of subject matter Szymanowski’s magnificent choral ballet Harnasie is sort of the Polish equivalent of Stravinsky’s Les Noces (The Wedding), although the idiom is squarely Szymanowski’s own brand of luxurious late Romanticism—here spiked liberally with the punchy rhythms, earthy sonority, and ageless tunefulness of folk music. It’s a work that deserves to be enormously popular. Probably the need for tenor solo plus chorus in a work lasting a scant 35 minutes counts against it, but this fabulous new performance by the always reliable Antoni Wit and Co. could do much to introduce new listeners to this splendid piece. Think, if you will, of Daphnis et Chloé meets Carmina Burana, and you’ll have a good sense of the music’s unique combination of sensuousness and vital energy.

Mandragora is a another brief (27-minute) work composed as an insert for a performance of Le bourgeois gentilhomme, but it stands perfectly well on its own. Comparatively speaking, the idiom is aptly lighter and more neo-classical than the later Harnasie, but it’s no less enjoyable. Prince Potemkin started life as incidental music, but yet again lives on as an independent concert piece. It has one of the sexiest final chords in the entire orchestral repertoire, and Antoni Wit relishes every evocative sonority. As is so often the case with this conductor, tempos tend to be moderate, but the energy level remains consistently high thanks to incisive rhythmic pointing and clean, clear textures.

The playing and singing here are never less than world class in any case, and Naxos’ engineering is extremely natural, like a good balcony seat in a warm, spacious hall. At first you might find the soft bits a touch lacking in impact (not clarity), but once you get the volume set comfortably the big choral climaxes fill the ample acoustic with real “you are there” immediacy, not to mention perfect balances between singers and instrumentalists. There have been several excellent recordings of this music from Polish labels in the past, and even Simon Rattle’s EMI recording was very good, but it would be hard to come by finer performances than these, and if you don’t yet know a major masterpiece like Harnasie then this reasonably priced edition is surely the one to own.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, February 2009

Continuing this series of Szymanowski’s symphonic music that is setting new standards by which all others will be measured, Antoni Wit with his magnificent Warsaw Philharmonic now perform two great ballet scores. Harnasie came late in his life being completed in 1931, just two years before the Second Violin Concerto, his last orchestral score. It was described as a ballet-pantomime and tells of the abduction of a bride on her wedding day by the robber-band, Harnasie, and was a highly animated and dramatic piece including parts for tenor and chorus. Its fusion of so many styles, including traditional folk music, was to quickly win the score favour in Central European theatres. The somewhat shorter Mandragora started out life as the interlude in the third act of Moliere’s play, Le Bourgeois gentilhomme. Though written at much the same time, it is very different in style, and akin to Stravinsky’s Petrushka, its mix of comedy and grotesquerie creating a piquant score. Left only in manuscript at his death, Prince Potemkin, was intended as incidental music for Tadeusz Micinski’s play by that name. Good but not a major work. The playing is superb throughout, the subtle details that the Warsaw orchestra can produce is very special. Antoni Wit’s exact attention to dynamics goes beyond the call of duty, and the magical textures he obtains takes these performances way out of reach of rival recordings. He has a fine tenor in the long established Wieslaw Ochman, but I draw your attention to the young  tenor, Alexander Pinderak, whose atmospheric appearances in Mandragora are very special. Transparent, lucid, ideally balanced sound rounds off a fabulous disc.

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