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Krystian Zimerman - Szymanowski Piano Works. Glowing jewels from a supreme pianist / The Guardian

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“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 modulations”    -   Arthur Rubinstein on Karol Szymanowski

Polish pianist Krystian Zimerman returns to his roots to pay tribute to his compatriot Karol Szymanowski on the 140th anniversary of the composer’s birth. Having studied his solo piano works for decades, Zimerman presents a new album of richly varied repertoire spanning the period from 1899 to the mid-1920s. His aim is to shed new light on this less familiar aspect of Szymanowski’s output and help cement his reputation as one of the great composers of piano music. 

There is also a strong thread of friendship running through this album, linking both Szymanowski and Zimerman to legendary pianist Arthur Rubinstein, and Zimerman to the world-renowned acoustician Yasuhisa Toyota. Coupling repertoire captured this year at the Toyota-designed concert hall in Fukuyama with previously unreleased recordings made by Zimerman in 1994, Karol Szymanowski: Piano Works will be released by Deutsche Grammophon on 30 September 2022 on CD and digitally, including an immersive surround sound version. A 2-LP edition will follow on 21 October.

Zimerman bookends his programme with music written in Szymanowski’s student days, beginning with four of the nine Preludes Op. 1, some of which may date back as far as 1896, when the composer was only 14. Masques Op. 34, written on the composer’s family estate in Ukraine during the First World War, reflects both Szymanowski’s immersion in the writing of Debussy, Scriabin and Stravinsky and his pre-war travels in North Africa and the Mediterranean region. A work from the height of his artistic maturity, it portrays three literary figures: Scheherazade, “Tantris” or Tristan and Don Juan.

This is followed by four of his twenty Mazurkas Op. 50 (1926-31), the only set to compare in substance with those of Chopin. Brimming with complex rhythmic writing, chromatic harmonies and rich textures, and setting considerable technical challenges for the performer, the pieces were largely inspired by the folk songs and dances of the Tatra Mountains. Zimerman then concludes with the exquisite Variations on a Polish Folk Theme Op.10, a work which won the composer shortlived acclaim from Polish critics after its first performance in 1906. 

From The Guardian….The Polish virtuoso continues his journey through the music of his native land, bringing wit and delicate lyricism

Andrew Clements writes…..Every new release from Krystian Zimerman is a special event, but this one is more so than most. After a recent series of concerto recordings, this is Zimerman’s first solo disc for five years, which, following previous discs of Bacewicz and Lutoslawski, continues his exploration of music from his native Poland. Though this selection of Karol Szymanowski’s piano works omits one of the best known, the three “poems” of Métopes, as well as all three of his piano sonatas, it does include representative pieces from all phases of his development. The performance of Szymanowski’s other set of character pieces, Masques, dates back to 1994, but wasn’t released at the time; Zimerman recorded the rest of this disc in June this year, in Fukuyama, Japan.

He begins with four of the 1900 preludes (Nos 1, 2, 7 and 8) that make up Szymanowski’s Op 1, transforming each into a glowing jewel. The stylistic shift between their Chopinesque world and the Masques, composed 15 years later, is stark; those three pieces were written when Szymanowski’s modernism, a mix of Scriabin, Stravinsky and Debussy, was at its most intense, and Zimerman brings to them the wit and bewitching command of keyboard texture and colour that makes his Debussy playing so peerless. A selection of the set of mazurkas Op 50, representing the final phase of Szymanowski’s development, offers a further contrast again, their delicately traced lyricism alternating with the rustic robustness stemming from his explorations of the folk music of the Tatra mountains.

Zimerman ends the disc with the Variations on a Polish Folk Theme Op 10, from 1904, which includes a funeral march (Chopin again) and a bravura fugal finale that demonstrates yet another facet of his supreme pianism, for his command of virtuoso brilliance is just as extraordinary as his control of the most subtle nuances of phrasing and pacing. This is a marvellous disc from an utterly exceptional artist.

Photograph: Bartek Barczyk

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