Szymanowski has never gained the foothold in the international repertoire that he deserves. In a way, that’s surprising. His music’s sensuous surfaces certainly offer immediate visceral appeal; and while his style is individual, even idiosyncratic, listeners encountering it for the first time will certainly find enough familiar points of orientation (for instance, Ravel’s ‘Le gibet’ at the opening of ‘Shéhérazade’ from Masques) to keep bewilderment at bay. In another way, though, his limited public success is unsurprising, since he throws such difficulties at his performers. I’m not talking so much about the technical demands (although they are formidable, especially in the piano music), but rather about the exceptional tact that his music requires. If you succumb too readily to the blandishments of its ear-caressing eroticism and fairy-tale mysticism, the sound can easily dissolve into a kind of generalized post-impressionist mush that drowns listeners in sensual excess; if you focus too sharply on the complex workings of its rhythms, its post-tonal harmonic skidding, and especially its Byzantine juxtaposition of musical ideas (much of this piano music is written on three staves), the music can easily turn cluttered, burdening listeners with cerebral overload.
How does Cédric Tiberghien meet the challenge? I’ve already had an opportunity to praise his Szymanowski when he partnered with Alina Ibragimova on a disc of music for violin and piano (May 2009). Now, on his first solo recital, on Hyperion, he returns to the composer with comparably intoxicating results. Certainly, he boasts the necessary digital dexterity. The white-knuckle vehemence of the last of the Op 33 Etudes (which, as Francis Pott’s detailed notes remind us, has a kinship to Prokofiev’s Toccata)? The sensitive articulation and balance of the tremolos, trills and other shimmering gestures of the first piece in Métopes, ‘L’île des Sirènes’ (less overtly virtuosic but even harder to bring off)? Whatever Szymanowski demands, Tiberghien delivers without a moment of strain or fakery. By comparison, Martin Jones (a touchstone for many) seems to lumber, even at quicker tempos. More important, though, 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. The glowing embers at the beginning of Op 33 No 8 (which starts as a sibling of Scriabin’s Vers la Flamme), the tipsiness of Op 33 No 7, the misty traces of dance in ‘Shéhérazade’, the quiet nobility at the beginning ot Op 4 No 3: Tiberghien’s insight into this music’s ever-transforming character never falters.
No complaints? Well, there’s little doubt that Tiberghien’s refinement highlights the music’s subtlety, sometimes at the expense of its more extroverted outbursts. Louder dynamics are sometimes played down, fuller textures can be held in check, sharper rhythms can lose their knife edge. Piotr Anderszewski’s more robustly earthy performances of Masques and Métopes give us a far less effervescent sense of Szymanowski’s muse. Still, if you’ve yet to explore Szymanowski’s keyboard output, Tiberghien’s new Hyperion disc is an excellent place to start; and even if you’ve already got a strong Szymanowski collection, it will make a welcome addition to your shelves.