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Hyperion Records

CDA67886 - Szymanowski: Masques, Métopes & Études
Landscape with a Traveller (c1921) by Eugeniusz Zak (1884-1926)

Recording details: March 2013
Henry Wood Hall, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Andrew Keener
Engineered by David Hinitt
Release date: February 2014
DISCID: 35117A16
Total duration: 74 minutes 34 seconds


'Karol Szymanowski was never a concert virtuoso but knew the piano inside out, writing music that, despite its often complex textures, is always beautifully laid out for the hands. The three Métopes from 1915 recall ‘the leavening, salutary influence of Ravel’s and Debussy’s weightless, diaphanous textures’ (to quote Francis Pott in his booklet-note) and rely ‘upon a performer of fastidious polyphonic instincts and acute subtlety’ … one can have no reservations about Cédric Tiberghien’s playing throughout this absorbing disc' (Gramophone) » More

'Few players of this music combine quite such clarity and articulation with shimmering sparkle and virtuosic flair: this is sophisticated pianism … The most famous of these Scriabinesque pieces, the sorrowful and haunting No 3 in B flat minor, was made popular by Paderewski, and Tiberghien’s performance explains its enduring appeal … you will be left wanting to listen again' (BBC Music Magazine) » More

'The remarkably gifted French pianist Cédric Tiberghien has all the wherewithal to combat the hazards of articulation, and, more than that, he has a sharp ear for characterisation in an idiom that on occasion is haunted by images of Debussy and Scriabin but has an expressive pungency all its own … Tiberghien’s definition of atmosphere and affinity with Szymanowski’s imagination and language give his performances a mesmerising, scintillating power and colour' (The Daily Telegraph) » More

'Whatever Szymanowski demands, Tiberghien delivers without a moment of strain or fakery … Tiberghien’s intellectual and emotional grasp of Szymanowski’s idiom allows him to light on a fully convincing balance of the music’s competing elements. The results are fragrant but never cloying, intricate but never convoluted; and he’s never thrown off by the music’s quirky syntax or its shifting metres. Timbrally, the playing is consistently gorgeous, too, tonally ravishing even at the quietest dynamic levels: listen, for instance, as ‘Shéhérazade’, the first of the three Masques, fades away to inaudibility. Consistently gorgeous but far from uniform in tone of voice' (International Record Review) » More

'More exciting piano playing awaits in Cédric Tiberghien’s recital of études and character pieces from the early 20th century by the Polish magician Szymanowski. This kaleidoscopic, richly perfumed music requires an extremely delicate touch and an ability to dart over all parts of the keyboard at the same time. No problem for Tiberghien: in L’île des Sirènes from the set of Métopes, the notes’ liquid flow made my jaw drop and my knees give way. Be prepared: Szymanowski in Tiberghien’s hands is a potent drug indeed' (The Times) » More

'This young Frenchman proves a persuasive advocate for a representative selection of piano works, from the Romantic, Chopin-inspired Op 4 Etudes (1900-02) to three collections written during the First World War that show the marked influence of late Liszt, Debussy and Ravel, especially the impressionist portraits of Szymanowski's masterpiece, Métopes' (The Sunday Times) » More

'The pianist Cédric Tiberghien offers a colorful, virtuosic traversal through some of Szymanowski’s rhapsodic piano scores, including the characterful, fiery études and the more languid Métopes' (The New York Times)

'Cédric Tïberghien, déjà remarquable dans l’œuvre pour violon et piano avec Alina Ibragimova (Diapason d'or, cf. no 571), relève sans la moindre faiblesse les défis techniques—Szymanowski est redoutable pour les doigts. Dans les deux triptyques, il souligne la filiation lisztienne, souvent négligée, par un piano généreux, orchestral. Grâce à un respect scrupuleux des infinies nuances d’expression ou d’agogique, la ligueur formelle s’unit à liberté rhapsodique, la sensualité des couleurs à la mobilité des rythmes—signature de Szymanowski. Langueurs capiteuses de Schéhérazde, grimaces douloureuses ele 'Tantris le bouffon', cyclothymie névrotique de la 'Sérénade de Don Juan', rien de l’esprit de Masques ne lui échappe. Dans Métopes, il exalte les jeux d'eaux de 'L'Ile des sirènes', les séductions capiteuses de 'Calypso' (deux pages également marquées par l'inimitable Richter, Decca), les mouvements chorégraphiques, grâce ou transe, de 'Nausicaa'. Au-delà de la virtuosité, les Etudes op. 33 s’apparentent bien à des pièces d’atmosphère. À des improvisations fantasques où Tïberghien sait creuser du mystère' (Diapason, France) » More

Masques, Métopes & Études
Presto  [1'06]
Andantino soave  [1'21]
Andante soave  [1'21]
Shéhérazade  [12'22]
Calypso  [6'03]
Nausicaa  [5'31]

In Cédric Tiberghien’s first solo recording for Hyperion he embraces the sensual, crepuscular sound-world of Szymanowski’s piano music. Tiberghien’s expressive, mercurial, quicksilver playing with its extraordinary pianissimos and kaleidoscopic range of colour makes him an ideal performer of this repertoire.

Szymanowski’s most celebrated works have been recorded here. The early 4 Études include the popular ‘Andante in modo d’una canzone’, a sorrowful song above slow repeated chords. The rest of the (later) works show the maturing of Szymanowki’s unique piano style and in particular the salutary influence of Ravel’s and Debussy’s weightless, diaphanous textures.

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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
'His style owed much to Chopin, his form had something of Scriabin, but there was already the stamp of a powerful, original personality to be felt in the line of his melody and in his daring and original modulations.’ In these terms the pianist Artur Rubinstein expressed the impact made upon him by the early piano works of Karol Maciej Szymanowski, which led to his engineering a meeting with the composer. Their encounter, at Zakopane in the Tatra Mountains, inaugurated a friendship which was to end only with the composer’s premature death at a Lausanne sanatorium on 29 March 1937.

Szymanowski was born into a privileged artistic family on 3 October 1882. Its estate was at Tymoszówka in the Ukraine, part of the Russian Empire since the annexation of that area of Poland. The family boasted an illustrious Polish pedigree, matched by a fervent patriotism which never left the composer despite his nomadic later existence. Between 1901 and 1904 Karol studied privately in Warsaw (then a something of a cultural backwater). He was one of a group who styled themselves as Mloda Polska (‘Young Poland in Music’), though this proclaimed no particular shared ideals and, ironically, was powerfully influenced by the Germanic tradition. Szymanowski’s music before the Great War is steeped not only in the influences noted by Rubinstein, but also in Wagner and, very noticeably, Reger, whose densely reinforced counterpoint exerted a powerful effect especially upon the first two of Szymanowski’s three piano sonatas, dating respectively from 1904 and 1911. Szymanowski dismissed his own First Symphony as a ‘monster’ on grounds of its intractable polyphonic congestion—and it is not unreasonable to see the rest of his output as labouring to break free of such complexity into the purer air of an exotically idiosyncratic musical language, its harmonic density offset both by diaphanous orchestration and, in contrasting episodes, by a telling economy of texture.

During the War years Szymanowski read voraciously, his discoveries including the contemporaneous Alsatian scholar of Byzantine art, Charles Diehl, the works of Plato and Leonardo, and the cultural histories of Islam, ancient Rome and early Christianity. Between 1911 and 1914 he travelled widely, visiting Italy, Sicily and North Africa. In 1913 he discovered the music of Stravinsky, excitedly proclaiming him a genius. From this point his interest in Germanic musical tradition all but evaporated and he drew increasingly upon Persian Sufi sources of inspiration, as in the transitional Love Songs of Hafiz, Op 26 (1914), though the Dionysiac strain which complemented this had been absorbed initially from The Birth of Tragedy, the work by Nietzsche to which Szymanowski remained devoted. The influence of French musical Impressionism was by now detectable too.

In 1917 Revolution swept away the old order and, with it, the Szymanowski family’s estate. The years following were a transitional period in which Karol visited England, the USA and, intriguingly, Cuba, which fascinated and delighted him. Subsequently he moved mainly between Warsaw, the Tatras and Paris, having established a considerable reputation in France. From 1924 he received greater recognition in Poland itself, particularly on account of his First Violin Concerto. In 1926 Szymanowski accepted the post of Principal at the Warsaw Conservatory. The task of dragging a dysfunctional institution kicking and screaming into the twentieth century proved a massive strain upon his nerves and constitution, and his heavy smoking and drinking appear to have been accompanied by morphine or cocaine addiction. In 1930 he was appointed Rector of the new State Academy of Music, but this was summarily closed down two years later, leaving him sick but too impoverished to cease work. He now had to depend largely on performing as a pianist. However, he was not a trained virtuoso and his playing was noted more for a certain intuitive sensitivity than for its technique. Moreover, this rootless mode of existence obviated further creative work, while his years at the Conservatory had played their part in inhibiting expansion of his reputation as a composer at home. His final years are a forlorn tale of advancing sickness, isolation and disillusionment.

Szymanowski’s Four Études, Op 4, were composed between 1900 and 1902. Before his Warsaw studies Szymanowski had attended the music school of his father’s cousin, Gustav Neuhaus, at Elisavetgrad, in what is now Ukraine. He dedicated these pieces to Tala (Natalia) Neuhaus, a lifelong friend. The harmonic and melodic inflections of early Scriabin are especially noticeable in the first Étude, in E flat minor, though not the distilled, evanescent brevity also characteristic of him. The second Étude, in G flat major, simultaneously divides groups of six semiquavers into subsets of both two and three to create an Escher-like, dizzying sense of conflicting perceptions. The B flat minor third Étude, which in posterity has achieved some independent fame, presents a sorrowful cantilena above slow repeating chords, rising to an imposing climactic restatement of the principal idea before reaching a sombre but subdued conclusion. The last Étude of the group offers a tantalizing glimpse of a far more tangential approach to tonality, juxtaposing hints of C major and A flat minor at the outset and launching without preamble into a restless discourse marked by obsessive repetition of short melodic motifs against a backdrop of triplet quavers. Eventually the fires burn themselves out, however, and with final calm comes unequivocal affirmation of C major as the sovereign key.

Between Szymanowski’s early piano works and the Métopes (1915) lies a radical expansion and realignment of aesthetic and technique. This took him from immersion in the dense fugal thinking of Reger to a shadowing of the mature Scriabin’s startling transformation during the first decade of the twentieth century and the leavening, salutary influence of Ravel’s and Debussy’s weightless, diaphanous textures. Devotion to a national tradition dropped from the picture early on, and it is a wider significance, not intrinsic Polishness, that distinguishes Szymanowski in posterity.

The title Métopes denotes the square panels in a Classical (Doric) frieze. The late Christopher Palmer suggested that the composer here recalled a Sicilian example which he had seen in the museum at Palermo. In his Mythes, Op 30, for violin and piano (dating from the same year), Szymanowski conjured an anthropomorphic world in which landscape and living presences mesh, so that it becomes hard to disentangle an intuitive study of character and emotion from the expressionistic extension of these into natural surroundings. Rather in the way that Beethoven in his ‘Pastoral’ Symphony alternated peopled landscapes and human states of mind with raw elemental impressionism, the move from Mythes to Métopes is from a living world to one stylized into a kind of impersonal, frigid brilliance.

A recurrent feature of Szymanowski’s music is its disjunction between harmonic density and a luminous weightlessness of actual texture. In the context of piano writing, this relies upon a performer of fastidious polyphonic instincts and acute subtlety. L’île des Sirènes typifies this. Intricate, visually inconsistent on the page and languorously fitful in its activity, the music is mostly deployed over three staves, abounding in what Palmer lists as ‘watery trills and tremolos; atmospheric use of the pedal to form a haze of sound; fine sprays of arpeggio; voluptuously spread chords; fine threads of melismata and arabesque on the one hand, sonorous climaxes on the other, all spun from the merest motivic fragments’.

Calypso embodies explicit reference to the Impressionism of Debussy and Ravel, particularly in a recurrent passage seemingly related to the closing stages of Ravel’s Ondine, the water sprite evoked in his triptych Gaspard de la nuit. There are hints also that Szymanowski might have studied the transient, misanthropic late piano pieces of Liszt: a possible source for his frequent use of tremolando effects. The chosen subject-matter seems tailor-made for Szymanowski’s hermetic world, since it was Calypso’s island where Ulysses was held captive for seven years. Apparent attempts by the salient motifs of the piece to extend into open space are regularly met with obstruction, in the form of a quietly peremptory resurfacing of various fragments of material heard already. Almost like musical sliding doors, these contradictory planes suggest a mirroring of narrative through musical metaphor.

Nausicaa, daughter of the King of Phaeacia, danced for the shipwrecked Ulysses as he awoke from slumber after being cast up on another beach. Initially halting, but then by turns buoyant and sinuous and with a kind of ambivalent decorum, the dance brings a measure of welcome contrast with the hothouse oppression of the preceding movement; and yet, at the climax, after a wild escalation of activity, the principal idea of Calypso suddenly combines with that of Nausicaa. Palmer ingeniously suggests that this denotes their common erotic interest in Ulysses, since in narrative terms they were otherwise unconnected.

Throughout Métopes, freewheeling spontaneity of gesture co-exists paradoxically with the sense of a claustrophobic inner world. The music embodies echoes of Berg’s Piano Sonata, Op 1, while diverging perceptibly from the language of Scriabin—a composer for whom the shackles of inherited sonata structure remained a sometimes insoluble problem in the face of an increasing distance from tonal thinking. That Szymanowski perceived no imperative to replace tonality with some other overarching means of organizing structure remains in itself an arresting aspect of his personality.

The Masques were begun in summer 1915 and completed at the same point in the year following. Each of the three pieces begins with a perceptible form of introduction but eludes specific structural definition thereafter. Again frequently requiring three staves, they explore all manner of textural complexities, often passing an inner melodic strand between hands or isolating an inner note from a surrounding chord in the interests of a subtle highlighting of line. Szymanowski composed habitually at the keyboard, and the consistency of his harmonic language is offset by a mercurial sense of deliberately playing hostage to whims, or—since the music perhaps consciously reflects its improvisatory roots—to the discoveries of the moment. Were the harmonic and tonal language not so studiedly elusive, this sense of precarious spontaneity would probably not survive repeated listening in the uncanny way that it does.

Shéhérazade enchants its audience in a slow-moving dance-like narrative which builds to a pair of linked climaxes, each preceded by an escalation of tempo. Between comes a lengthy slower passage, in which D as tonal anchorage is unexpectedly announced via a cadence so conventional that, here, it sounds wholly new. D persists as an undertone to what follows, without ever consolidating its sovereignty. Ultimately the music returns to its openings. The pitch D is balanced by the monotone A heard at the outset, yet without ever suggesting a conventional tonic–dominant relationship. No explicit programme is suggested for this luminously sculptural music, but the context of 1001 Nights, where Shéhérazade’s survival depends upon keeping her new royal husband entertained, lends a subcontext of danger, like that supernatural heightening of sensory awareness heralding an expected extinction.

Tantris le Bouffon is derived from a parody of the Tristan legend by Ernst Hardt, published in 1908. In possibly conscious antithesis to Shéhérazade, who cannot escape the royal chambers, Tantris attempts to break into Isolde’s quarters but is recognized by the dogs, which give the game away. The fact that Isolde is later handed over naked by the King to the lepers is perhaps more than enough (never mind its explanation) to indicate the worm-in-the-rose ambivalence of Szymanowski’s aesthetic, and is of relevance here only because, rather than strictly narrating events, the composer sets out to contrast the coarsely knockabout (in an apparently ugly, rather than humorous, light) with the despairing and the helpless. Perhaps too strange to conjure pathos, this ferociously demanding music hints in its fast passages at odd melodic glimmers of Petrushka. Stravinsky was a recent discovery for Szymanowski at the time of the Masques. Their chosen title may well nod towards the commedia dell’arte tradition to which Petrushka and Russian puppeteering are more generally related.

Sérénade de Don Juan is essentially a rondo. As Alastair Wightman notes in his critical biography of Szymanowski, this is the perfect form for a piece about an egomaniac, since its recurrent theme can stand as the antihero’s ongoing love affair with himself. Moreover, the solitary note D flat (much laboured in the theme) may itself represent the ego of one unwilling to let attention rest elsewhere for very long—even though the theme does appear at other pitches later in the proceedings. If humour is in short supply elsewhere in these works, it is sardonically evident in this movement. The D flat makes a meal of itself in the introduction, like someone very consciously conjuring ‘an entrance’. Palmer notes a possible evocation of someone making a great kerfuffle of tuning up (although in fourths rather than fifths, affording the interesting possibility of a Don who plays double bass rather than violin). Later the music invites comparison with Debussy’s Violin Sonata and, in its repeated-note evocations of flamenco tradition, with the jester figure in Alborada del gracioso, from Ravel’s Miroirs. The gracelessly peremptory ending hints at a petulant flouncing out when initial attention has waned. Describing Scaramouch, an antecedent of Don Juan in English theatre (famously borrowed in music by Darius Milhaud), Brewer’s Dictionary resoundingly dismissed him as ‘very valiant in words, but a poltroon’, a description which fits Szymanowski’s feckless protagonist equally well.

Possibly sensing that he had travelled as far as he could along the path leading to the Métopes and Masques, at around the same point in his career Szymanowski began to renew a relationship with purely functional titles and music devoid of external reference. One product of this was the immense Third Piano Sonata (1917); another the late set of Twelve Études, Op 33 (1916). If the former combines expansive ideas with the accrued wisdom of the preceding decade or more, the latter demonstrates a compression of thought which may seem startling after the discursive abstractions of Calypso or Shéhérazade. These are pieces of epigrammatic brevity, seemingly leading into one another like a series of connected rooms and conjuring an integrated experience in a way that eludes structural analysis. If such a description evokes thoughts of Schumann or Scriabin, the informing aesthetic here is quite distinct from either and reached through a markedly different evolution.

It may be pertinent that Szymanowski had imbibed so much Islamic art on his travels in North Africa; for much of the beauty and mystical power of such work resides in the subtlety, but also hypnotic repetition, of its patterning. An étude offers an apposite foil, its tradition having rested historically upon repetition of a specific figuration throughout a brief movement, with technical drill for the executant usually in mind as much as pure musical expression. Nonetheless, Szymanowski seemingly approached even these pieces as abstract pictures; and, in listening, it may be helpful to think of the way in which a modern visual artist might use the term ‘study’: without the intervening medium of a performer, a canvas becomes its own contemplative statement of an inner world. Possibly aware of Debussy’s Études for piano (1915) as fresh appraisals which were really studies in compositional texture, Szymanowski appropriated the term for what remains primarily a poetic articulation of mood. Far from withering in the face of this confining framework, his distinctive harmony evolves in newly elliptical ways, reminding us of Stravinsky’s dictum that the artist needs constraints in order to find true freedom.

The first Étude flickers in a crepuscular way before expiring on a distinctly blues-like, bitonal chord. No 2 explores the interval of the major second before expanding into a more opulent, but still restrained, texture. No 3 hints at recurrence of the first, and at texturally varied revisiting of the same ideas, thereby implying the possibility of a kind of rondo construct spread across the set, though this proves largely illusory. Diatonic melodic shapes are continually subverted by underlying harmonic contexts which pull in some other tonal direction, the disjunction lending freshness to what might otherwise be tried and tested ground. No 4 leads out of No 3 almost without a break, and creates an agile shimmering between more hesitant moments where memories of the abstract-titled works fleetingly resurface. The piece ends in sudden affirmation of E flat minor, whereupon No 5 reverts to the use of a key signature to consolidate the major equivalent in a brief melodic meditation whose nineteenth-century antecedents (especially Chopin) seem to make a ghostly appearance. In contrast, No 6 hints at the patterning of one or two of Scriabin’s more turbulent early preludes and études. Clear tonality disappears as abruptly as it had arrived. As if these central pieces were an unwitting fulcrum, No 7 seems not to remember Chopin as much as anticipate Lutoslawski and his neglected, shortlived contemporary, Grazyna Bacewicz. No 8 again hints at nineteenth-century models through a distorting aural mirror, its disconsolate quality prefiguring moments in Prokofiev’s ‘war’ sonatas (Nos 6, 7 and 8). As in other contexts, a pitch heard as tangential at the outset (in this case D) is tonally consolidated in a conventional ending. No 9 is spasmodically whimsical, No 10 a driven and ominous toccata. No 11 packs a kaleidoscopic dreamscape into nine dense bars. Visually resembling, perhaps parodying, Scriabin’s Étude in D flat major, Op 8 No 10, the last piece hurtles by in thirds, briefly losing impetus before gathering for a final onslaught reminiscent of Prokofiev’s demonic Op 11 Toccata. When the music seems over, a final surprise arrives in the form of a would-be diatonic ending so disjunct from the rest of the piece as to suggest nose-thumbing at tonality itself. To the last, this remarkable composer makes no concession to those unable or unwilling to adapt to his eclectic yet uniquely distinctive world.

Francis Pott © 2014

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