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. It has never caught the imagination of the general public, with perhaps the exception of the dolorously lovely B flat Étude from Op 4, clearly modelled on Chopin’s B minor Prelude. This early set was composed between 1900 and 1902, when Scriabin was a major influence, though the bitonal opening of the last of the four hints at wrhat was to come. The distance travelled can be measured by the second set of (12) Études from 1916, dedicated to Alfred Cortot: epigrammatic (none lasts more than two minutes), tonally enigmatic, extremely difficult and played as a sequence without break.
The three Métopes from 1915 (a metope here is a sculptured panel in a Doric frieze)—‘L’île des Sirenes’, ‘Calypso’ and ‘Nausicaa’—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’. The studied spontaneity of the three Masques (1915-16)—‘Shéhérazade’, ‘Tantris le Bouffon’ and ‘La Sérénade de Don Juan’—again defy structural analysis, their titles having no immediately obvious connection with the music.
But if I personally find it hard to respond positively to these elusive tone-poems, one can have no reservations about Cédric Tiberghien’s playing throughout this absorbing disc.
His quite extraordinary tonal palette and acute observation of the composer’s fastidious notation are beyond reproach, a masterclass in refined virtuosity.