Krystian Zimerman and Lisa Batiashvili record Szymanowski

  • by by Tim Pfaff
  • Tuesday October 4, 2022
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pianist Krystian Zimerman and violinist Lisa Batiashvili<br>
pianist Krystian Zimerman and violinist Lisa Batiashvili

There is a handful of musicians of such eminence that, although they perform and record relatively seldom, their appearances are command performances for their colleagues and devotees alike. The Polish pianist Krystian Zimerman is one, and he has just released a special recording of his countryman Karol Szymanowski's solo piano works (DG).

For his part, Szymanowski (Shimanofsky) is a composer of such substance and refinement that every time you hear his music, your first question is why you don't hear it more often. The esteem in which it is currently held is at least as high as any time since his death in 1937.

Still, such as he has a bigger "name" today it's as the composer of the opera "Krol Roger," in which homosexual longing plays a central role. Increased focus on his own homosexuality has won Szymanowski some currency in recent years, but his audience today is mixed.

His greatest proponent in the last century was the Polish pianist Arthur Rubinstein, who recognized the composer's importance at the first glimpse of a score and became a friend as well as an advocate of his music. A friend of Rubinstein's, Zimerman completes the circle —for now.

A Pole apart
Born into a wealthy Polish family in Ukraine, Szymanowski was at liberty to refresh his creativity in the manner of many of his counterparts, with travel to countries in the Mediterranean and North Africa. There he, like many of the others, found it easier to express his gay side, with locals of the underclass willing if not eager to participate in that expression.

Szymanowski's music is generally divided into three periods, from the influence of Wagner and Strauss to a phase of the "Orientalism" that swept most of Europe and finally to a full embrace of the music of his motherland.

Perhaps what most needs saying now is that, for all its individuality and high pedigree, all of Szymanowski's music is immediately accessible, even to first-time listeners. At its most serious, it bothers to be ravishingly beautiful, and occasionally, beyond the Orientalism, otherworldly.

Other pianists, several also Polish, have made vital all-Szymanowski recordings, but Zimerman's is in a league of its own. There's an iridescence to the playing that pairs exquisitely with its lucidity and deep feeling.

Three Preludes show the influence of Chopin on his fellow Pole, as do the four Mazurkas, which also share the forward-looking musical language of Alexander Scriabin. Recorded in 1994, the Mazurkas are released for the first time here. Between them are three Masques, which, in keeping with their name, indulge programs. The first, "Sheherazade," is a dramatic exemplar of Szymanowski's Orientalism.

The set most likely to carry you away is the "Variations on a Polish Folk Tune," from the composer's student years. It has the flair and ambition of a young man's work. It's captivating even in its overreach, such as its spectacular fugal finale, though it's also deeply musical and deeply felt. It's the kind of music to which Szymanowski returned at the end of his life, if here more brash and exuberant.

A glorious change of instruments
Out and then some conductor Yannick Nezet-Seguin programs Szymanowski into his most recent release (DG) by way of the First Violin Concerto, with his frequent concert partner Lisa Batiashvili and his own Philadelphia Orchestra. A one-movement work from 1916, it stems from a root of Polish music but soon sets sail into more exotic climes.

It asks everything of a violinist, including a willingness to be saucy, and Batiashvili revels in her music. But the wonder is at least as much in the suave playing of the Philadelphians, who indulge the colors lent by Debussy while Stravinsky looks on from the wings. But it's as a totality that it scores, Szymanowki at his most extravagant, yearning, and unbuttoned.

Like many classical CDs these days, it flies under a title, "Secret Love Letters," that in this doesn't stretch the notion beyond the breaking point. The Violin Concerto is nestled in a program that begins with a reading of the Cesar Franck Sonata (with pianist Giorgi Gigashvili) of equal parts passion and tenderness. I love this piece to the point of being possessive about it, but I'm perfectly willing to have this duo take me away.

After the Concerto comes Ernest Chausson's Poeme for Violin and Orchestra, and Debussy's "Beau soir" in a Jascha Heifetz arrangement, with Nezet-Seguin at the keyboard. The Chausson is a rapturous weave of rich sonority and fine filigree in a performance that sits comfortably alongside the best. The Debussy is unusually haunting and makes an ideal ending to the fare. When Nezet-Seguin gets time to practice is beyond me, but he's as remarkable a performing musician as the others on this fine, cumulatively enchanting release.

Krystian Zimerman, Szymanowski Piano Music, Deutsche Grammophon, $13.98

Lisa Batiashvili, violin, Secret Love Letters, The Philadelphia Orchestra, Yannick Nezet-Seguin, conductor and pianist, Deutsche Grammophon, $13.98

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