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Ewan McCormick
MusicWeb International, October 2008

Forming part of what appears to be a new series of Polish works on Naxos, Wit and his Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra supply a mature understanding of the music which is balanced by engineering that is unobtrusive yet fully realistic. The disc provides a good mix of Szymanowski’s early, late-romantic style with his later more spare approach initiated by his contact with these religious texts. The Stabat Mater and Litany are tricky works to bring off effectively, requiring from the performers a balance between restraint and ecstasy, the spiritual and the sensual.

Not all recent performers have successfully maintained the equilibrium between these two opposing forces; Simon Rattle’s Birmingham version sounds fantastic but to my ears the essentially chaste religious inspiration behind the music is missing. No such concerns affect Wit’s performance; he holds his forces on a tight rein, but will allow the dynamics to expand as appropriate. The team of soloists is excellent, with soprano Iwona Hossa particularly radiant in the Stabat Mater and the three other works on this CD requiring her participation. The Warsaw Philharmonic Choir sings with firm, homogenous tone although perhaps an even greater attention to dynamics might have been welcome.

The Veni Creator is an altogether more extrovert work, as befitting its celebratory origins (it was written for the inauguration of the Warsaw Academy of Music) and the recording here makes a tremendous impact with full chorus, orchestra and organ.

The two earlier works, Demeter and Penthesilea, bring us examples of Szymanowski the exoticist and romantic. Originally for voice and piano, Szymanowski completed a full orchestral version of Demeter in 1924. Setting a mythological poem by Szymanowski's sister Zofia, the work portrays the feelings of the goddess of the harvest as she wanders the earth searching for her daughter Persephone, who had been abducted and taken to the underworld. The music is for the most part restrained and slow, but the orchestral colours reflect Szymanowski’s preoccupation with Eastern culture with its whole tone scales and woodwind arabesques; the work is contemporaneous with the Third Symphony.

Szymanowski wrote Penthesilea in February 1908 during his stay in Nervi near Genoa in Italy; the work was first presented to the public in Lvov on 20 March 1910 by Szymanowski's sister Stanisława Korwin-Szymanowska, who also participated in the premieres of Stabat Mater and Litany. Reflecting the composer’s interest in classical antiquity, the work is written in an opulent, late-romantic style.

An excellent collection of Szymanowski’s choral works in first class sound.

Mark Sealey
MusicWeb International, October 2008

Szymanowski was at the centre of a movement in early twentieth century Poland to develop a distinctive musical identity for his country. The intention was to steer it away from the provincialism—even in Warsaw—that had caused Chopin to move to France in the 1830s. Given some of the other—particularly East European and Slav—nationalist movements of the same period, it has to be said that Szymanowski's music makes its impact on us now perhaps more for its subdued beauty, melodiousness and even its restrained religious fervour than as music with primarily regional appeal.

The five items on this welcome CD from Polish musicians illustrate that point. The Stabat Mater is constructed around crescendi and diminuendi, lush harmonies and contrasts in texture. They hint at a sparse, searing world that Szymanowski never developed in the way that Gubaidulina, Lutosławski or even Górecki did. There is almost as much of Brahms—or even Puccini—the 'Quis est homo', [tr.2], for example!—in this Stabat Mater as of composers whom we associate with an old form that they brought into the twentieth century. In other pieces—Penthesilea in particular—we are reminded of Strauss too. Because Szymanowski chose to set a Polish translation of the Latin text such comparisons are invited.

Both soloists and orchestra are unapologetic in emphasising the romantic aura with which the Stabat Mater is shot through, in pausing for effect and swelling to reinforce. This is not wayward; but helps to involve us in the performance. The 'Fac me tecum' [tr.4], for example, is moving without being maudlin. Similarly the 'Virgo virginum' [tr.5] is forceful without being over-rhetorical.

The choir too knows its place—and stays there. The singing is clean and transparent, neither over-blown, nor hesitant. Indeed, it was this orchestra and chorus that first performed the Stabat Mater in 1929. The piece occupies almost half of this relatively short CD and makes a welcome addition to the catalogue, which otherwise contains over half a dozen recordings of the Stabat Mater—one of the better of them on Dux (349) by Wit too—though with the Polish National Symphony Orchestra, Cracow Polish Radio/TV Chorus and different soloists.

The Veni Creator was written five years or so after the Stabat Mater and is the next most substantial piece on this CD. In some ways it has a more consciously national stamp than the Stabat Mater. Again to a Polish text, it's lighter and more upbeat - understandably, given the theme. To say that Iwona Hossa's (soprano) soaring and ample voice 'stars' here too is not an exaggeration. Nor a criticism. The singer has a technique and interpretative strengths that lead us through her passages in the most comforting and yet stimulating ways. Again contrast is key. Again Wit elicits these to great effect from his forces.

The Litany is quieter, more introspective. Once more, it's accuracy and spot-on technique from the players and singer (Hossa too) that convey the intensity and concentration required to make this work; histrionics would not have been right at all. Yet the music is at times almost overpoweringly downbeat. The sorrow and regret that permeate the way, for example, that the strings play is never overdone, nor superfluous. These musicians are obviously at home in this music and seem to have set out to communicate what it means to them as much as to offer it as a self-standing choral gem. They are successful in that approach.

Demeter and Penthesilea were both written earlier. Demeter was not only re-orchestrated in the 1920s, but its material also eventually formed the basis for Szymanowski's opera, King Roger. Similarly Penthesilea takes a classical theme and explores a small portion of it—the Queen of the Amazons' love for Achilles. As precise and passionate as Hossa is in the latter, Ewa Marciniec (mezzo-soprano) is in her complete absorption in the spirit and technical 'letter' of Demeter. Very persuasive singing expertly supported by the choir and orchestra.

The presentation, recording and booklet (no texts) are up to the usual Naxos standard—if minimal. The balance, too, may strike some listeners as a little off—particularly in the climaxes, when Hossa and Marciniec are just a little overshadowed by the strings of the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra. Minor criticisms aside, this is a collection of lovely and compelling music that is sensitively interpreted and well performed by all.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, September 2008

It was after his return to Warsaw in 1919 that Karol Szymanowski fully embraced composition in a nationalist style, his opera, King Roger, and oratorio, Stabat Mater, becoming two Polish masterpieces from the 20th century.

Born into a wealthy Polish artistic family in 1882, as a young man Szymanowski had the opportunity to travel to hear the music of the great German composers, Wagner, Strauss and Reger, all three becoming influences in his early scores. Though instrumental in forming the Young Poland in Music group that gave him international exposure, he was restless in his urge to travel and reside in Europe’s musical centres. That generated an Oriental and French Impressionist input into his middle period before his final sector began following his return to Poland. The result was three styles of composition that journey from the sensual and erotic lyricism in the sumptuously scored First Violin Concerto, to the less complex quality that embraces traditional Polish musical ideas in the setting of the Stabat Mater. Deeply reverential in quality, its use of three soloists, chorus and orchestra is often of chamber music proportions. The conductor, Antoni Wit, produces the most beautiful performance it has received on disc—this being the second version to appear on Naxos—the Warsaw Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra totally inspired by his direction. Iwona Hossa floats those high-lying soprano lines with consummate ease, Ewa Marciniec and Jaroslaw Brek completing an accomplished trio. The full weight of chorus and orchestra is eventually released in a thrilling and impassioned account of Veni Creator. The disc is completed by Litania do Marii Panny (Litany to the Virgin Mary), andtwo typical scores from his younger years, Demeter and Penthesilea. The recording quality is excellent. Highly recommended.

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