0 of 5 stars

Songs of a Fairy-tale Princess, Op.31
Harnasie, Op.55
Love Songs of Hafiz, Op.26

Iwona Sobotka (soprano) [Fairy-tale]

Timothy Robinson (tenor) [Harnasie]

Katarina Karnéus (mezzo-soprano) [Hafiz]

City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus [Harnasie]

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra
Sir Simon Rattle

Recorded in Symphony Hall, Birmingham in October 2002, June 2004 & March 2006

Reviewed by: Mike Wheeler

Reviewed: December 2006
CD No: EMI 3 64435 2
Duration: 65 minutes

Simon Rattle returns to Birmingham for this latest instalment in his Szymanowski series for EMI.

This one straddles the great divide in the composer’s output between the heady orientalism of works written during the First World War, when the influence of Eastern cultures on his music was at its height, as represented by the two orchestral song-cycles, and his later work, reflecting his growing interest in the traditional music of Poland’s Tatra mountain region, which offered him an alternative exoticism, prompting music that aimed to be, as he insisted, “national, but not provincial” in tone.

“Songs of a Fairy-tale Princess” orchestrates three of the six songs of that title that Szymanowski originally wrote for voice and piano in 1915. The coloratura soprano part strongly suggests the influence of Stravinsky’s one-act opera “The Nightingale”, premièred the previous year, and Iwona Sobotka handles it with remarkable flair, combining brilliance, warmth and agility.

The climax of Szymanowski’s later manner comes in the choral-ballet “Harnasie”, his most direct engagement with Tatra folk-music, on which he worked from 1923 to 1931. It gets a magnificently full-blooded performance from Rattle and his Birmingham forces. The dance rhythms have an irresistible drive and vitality, both Timothy Robinson and the CBSO Chorus are in splendidly robust voice, and the orchestra plays with uninhibited vigour and passion, but also with great delicacy when required.

It’s back to Szymanowski’s earlier manner for “Love Songs of Hafiz”, orchestrated in 1925 from the voice-and-piano original dating from 1911, when his love-affair with Eastern cultures was just beginning. Katarina Karnéus’s vividly characterised and even-toned performance is every bit as assured as that of Iwona Sobotka, and her darker timbre fits the poems’ prevailing note of sensual longing like a glove.

The recording captures the full range of Szymanowski’s orchestral writing in all its rich sophistication and subtlety. Szymanowski is more or less standard repertoire for Rattle these days. When the results are as compelling as this, that can only be cause for celebration.

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