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CD Review

Karol Szymanowski

  • Symphony #2 in B Flat Major, Op. 19
  • Symphony #3 "The Song of the Night", Op. 27 *
  • Violin Concerto #2, Op. 61 **
* Ryszard Karczykowski, tenor
** Chantal Juillet, violin
* Kenneth Jewell Chorale
** Montréal Symphony Orchestra/Charles Dutoit
Detroit Symphony Orchestra/Antal Doráti
Decca Classics 20C 4787432
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Should you still find the prospect of most 20th-century music daunting, Decca generously includes a timeline of notable premieres that reminds us that many of our great "standard masterpieces" do in fact come after 1900. The Universal "20C" series has so far done a tremendous job restoring great performances to the catalog, while also providing a diverse overview of the differing styles and innovations of the previous century. This disc, most of it last seen on a long deleted Decca Double, still sounds terrific, and features two stalwarts of Decca's historic roster.

Karol Szymanowski isn't really remembered today except by "music people" and that's a pity. On evidence here, his music is beyond gorgeous. Recorded at one of Detroit's long-closed theatres, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra is heard here at the peak of their relationship with Antal Doráti. While their recordings of Copland have been continuously in circulation, this program (aside from that Decca Double with works by Lutosławski) has languished in the depths of Decca's back catalog. Doráti was a persuasive advocate of a wide variety of music, and his reading of Symphony #2, with an almost Romantic first movement, concluded by a raucous and decidedly modern fugue, is very convincing. The centerpiece of the program, the Song of the Night opens forbiddingly and ominously, but with tremendous atmosphere and tension. The Kenneth Jewell Chorale enters soon after, singing texts from 13th-Century Persian poet Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī. The work is scored for massive forces, and doesn't sound quite like anyone else.

After the spooky introduction, the first movement simply explodes with sound, aided by fervent choral declamations and resplendent orchestral tuttis. There's echoes of everyone here; Ravel, Scriabin, and Debussy, but the work still retains a highly individual profile thanks to unique touches in orchestration and inventive use of the chorus. The middle movement in particular, is like La Mer on acid, but even more daring in terms of color and tone. The final movement, beginning with a solemn tenor intonation, leads to some glorious climaxes and a lovely, hushed conclusion. Throughout, the Detroit Symphony plays magnificently, and Doráti keeps this admittedly daunting work impressively cogent. Decca's engineers deserve credit for so faithfully capturing the orchestral sections, from the solo violin to the very splashy harps.

The Violin Concerto #2 is a joy. Recorded 12 years later in Montréal, the work retains some of the impressionistic elements of Song of the Night, while also looking farther forward. Written at the end of his career, the piece is much more folk-influenced than either of the symphonies, and includes more dance-like rhythms than his previous work. The result is a wholly engaging concerto, full of good tunes and plenty of virtuoso twists. Even though his late music tends to leave behind his earlier influences, you can still catch some of his former style – especially in the orchestral writing – as well as his love of Far Eastern ideas. Chantal Juillet plays marvelously, and Charles Dutoit and his Montréal forces are happily on top form here. A really rewarding disc, especially if you have been waiting (like me) for these fine readings to return to circulation.

Copyright © 2014, Brian Wigman