In Proust's time: new discs from the 'Belle Epoque'

  • by Tim Pfaff
  • Tuesday January 30, 2024
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In Proust's time: new discs from the 'Belle Epoque'

Why some composers catch on with the public while others of comparable, sometimes higher, quality do not is one of the insoluble mysteries of classical music. There's no better example than the Pole Karol Szymanowski (1882-1937), whose music is the centerpiece of Piotr Anderszewski's new recording of solo piano music from the early decades of the 20th century (Erato).

Playing of the caliber of Anderszewski's would, you think, push his compatriot over the line. But we'll have to see. Although most of Szymanowski's music has never left the active repertory, the only one to have become well-known is, ironically, his most challenging, the expensive to produce opera, "Krol Roger."

Composer Karol Szymanowski  

Poles apart
Szymanowski has had no more illustrious advocate than the legendary pianist Arthur Rubinstein. The dedicatee and first composer of the piano part in Szymanowski's Fourth Symphony, Rubinstein accompanied the composer and the violinist Paul Kochaski on a U.S. tour in 1921.

It was at that time that, Rubinstein recalled, Szymanowski became, in the pianist's words, "a confirmed homosexual." Quaint as the description seems now, Szymanowski was singular in being out during his lifetime. Rubinstein commented that when his friend returned to Paris after a trip to Taormina, where he got on with the Sicilian boys, Szymanowski raved about the experience "with burning eyes."

At the time, traveling to southern Italy, northern Africa, and the Middle East to sample the male wildlife was not uncommon for men of means, perhaps most famously composer Camille Saint-Saëns. A good deal of Szymanowski's vocal music, including "King Roger" (pronounced ROHgur) is written to explicitly homosexual texts, as Saint-Saëns's never is.

However ironically, Szymanowski's "confirmed homosexuality" in his own day has played no particular role in garnering fame for his music in ours. It's also less conspicuously Polish than that of his far more renowned countryman, Frédéric Chopin.

Country dances
Szymanowski's solo-piano music does not fall into discreet genres the way Chopin's does, and much of it bears exotic titles redolent of the so-called Orientalism of his time. Conspicuously in the Chopin mold, however, are the Mazurkas of Opus 50.

Based on Polish folk themes but with an unmistakable salon twist, the mazurkas of both composers showcase adventurous harmonies and bewitchingly sprung rhythms in pieces of high concentration. Szymanowski's are easily the most performed and recorded of any of his music and are the centerpiece of Krystian Zimerman's indispensable complete Szymanowski (DG).

Anderszewski has recorded Szymanowski before -the "Masques,""Metopes," and the Third Sonata- all of that before having to play in the shadow of the incomparable Zimerman. But although the younger pianist's earlier recordings are exemplary if not definitive (whatever that means), the six new Mazurkas find him well out from under anyone's shadow, playing with musically "burning eyes."

They have all the color and subtlety of Zimerman's recordings but with shapes all their own. In the concise album notes, Anderszewski cites the rebelliousness of the music of Szymanowski, Leoš Janáček, and Béla Bartók as the feature common to his ambitious program. What you hear in Anderszewski's mazurkas is, beyond the defiance, an unmistakable anger, however refined.

The Janáček and Bartók selections also explore out-of-the-way repertory. Janáček -all of whose music has, against the odds, become not only familiar but good box office- is represented by the second book of "On an Overgrown Path," thornier than the more-often-heard first. Similarly, the Bartók pieces are the rarely encountered, pithy Bagatelles, Op. 6.

Anderszewski plays this fascinating program with his trademark blend of keen intellect and fine-grained touch. It's hard to capture music this fundamentally elusive, yet Anderszewski makes it sound as if the music is lifting off the piano's strings on its own volition.

The Parisian salon
Ever since Marcel Proust published "In Search of Lost Time" there's been a fevered hunt for the actual violin sonata that recurs throughout the seven volumes, which Proust attributed to a fictitious composer he named Vinteuil.

The prime contender has been the towering César Franck Sonata in A Major, but interesting conjecture has brought attention to lesser-known works, such as the violin sonata by Gabriel Pierné.

In "Le Temps retrouvé," their second album for the Chandos label, violinist Elena Urioste and pianist Tom Poster perform other contenders, such as the Gabriel Fauré Second Sonata. To call this fare "salon music" accurately describes the places it was first performed but wrongly suggests to the modern ear that it was little more than swanky bar music, however classy.

Composer Reynaldo Hahn  

Here the duo give exposure to less-well-known pieces such as the Violin Sonata by Reynaldo Hahn, Proust's paramour for two years and subsequently lifelong friend.

If there's a competition for Most Rediscovered Composer in our time, it's Hahn, who for too long has been associated almost exclusively with a handful of fine songs but wrote an astonishing amount of music, all of it for performance, not infrequently by him. (There are recordings of Hahn playing and singing.)

Hahn didn't introduce Proust to music; the writer already had advanced musical tastes and a consuming passion for music, but Hahn greatly expanded Proust's experience of it. The sonata lovingly performed here finds Hahn at his best, crafting superbly well-made "serious" music unafraid to buck modernism in pursuit of the kind of unabashedly beguiling stuff audiences always enjoy.

Urioste and Poster also give a reading of the Fauré that stands up to comparison with the finest of the newish Proust-salon records, Harmonia Mundi's "Proust, Le Concert Retrouvé," superbly performed on instruments like those played when the music was new.

But what counts as a significant rediscovery here is the Violin Sonata, Op. 112, of Mel Bonis, who augmented her scandal-rich life with an expansive body of exemplary music. Performances like this duo's could well spark a Bonis revival, which would leave the music world better off.

While we're in the neighborhood (make that arrondissement), there are two essential new recordings of the piano music of Fauré, whom Proust considered a god. Lucas Debargue has just published a fine set of the composer's complete works for solo piano (Sony).

If there's a reason this music is less-often heard in recital, it's because its elusive but patent beauties make pianists sweat bullets. Marc-Andre Hamelin's reputation is for taking to the most difficult music the way the rest of us go for chocolate. His new recording of Fauré Nocturnes and Barcarolles (Hyperion) is take-your-breath-away stuff.

Music by Szymanowski, Janáček, and Bartók, Piotr Anderszewski, piano, Erato.
"Les Temps retrouvé," Elena Urioste, violin and Tom Poster, piano, Chandos.
Gabriel Fauré, Complete Music for solo Piano, Lucas Debargue, Sony.
Gabriel Fauré, Nocturnes and Barcarolles, Marc-Andre Hamelin, piano, Hyperion.

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