Szymanowski: Stabat Mater, Harnasie - Gardner (Muzyka Polska VII)
Chandos CHSA 5123
Classical - Vocal
Szymanowski: Stabat Mater, Harnasie
Pamela Helen Stephen,
BBC Symphony Chorus
BBC Symphony Orchestra
With this new release, Edward Gardner and the BBC Symphony Orchestra continue their series exploring Polish music for Chandos. This is the second volume in the survey of orchestral works by Karol Szymanowski. The first was well received by critics and the public alike. A review in BBC Music read: ‘Chandos’s [Polish series] reaches impressive heights… Gardner shows how he has become one of the finest non-Polish interpreters of Szymanowski.’
Vigorous and colourful, the ballet-pantomime Harnasie (1927 – 31) is typical of Szymanowski’s late style. It is ambitious, too, in its attempt at re-working folk music in symphonic form. Scored for a massive orchestra with tenor soloist and chorus, the work concerns the abduction of a peasant bride-to-be by the outlaw Harnas and his followers, the ‘Harnasie’, legendary robbers with more than just a hint of a Robin Hood reputation.
Szymanowski described his Stabat Mater as a ‘Peasant Requiem’. In fact, its pairing of Polish musical elements with liturgical text is entirely unique, and a clear reflection of the composer’s nationalistic convictions. Despite its modest size and its use of very modest orchestral forces, the work is considered one of Szymanowski’s most expressive and resonant, and it is one of the crowning glories of twentieth-century sacred music.
The internationally acclaimed soprano Lucy Crowe was recently described by The Sunday Times in the following glowing terms: ‘Lucy Crowe dazzles with her every appearance, a young singer blessed with look-at-me-and-listen charisma.’ She is joined by the mezzo-soprano Pamela Helen Stephen, baritone Gabor Bretz, and tenor Robert Murray, all of whom enjoy international reputations, performing with eminent orchestras and conductors around the world.
Review by Graham Williams - August 30, 2013
The increasingly valuable and comprehensive survey of Polish music in Chandos's 'Muzyka Polska' series conducted by Edward Gardner has now reached Volume 7 with this SACD devoted to two of Szymanowski's finest works from the 1920s, his 'Stabat Mater' and the ballet 'Harnasie' – making a first appearance on SACD.
Gardner's account of the 'Stabat Mater' is a breathtakingly beautiful and mesmerising one. From the first notes of the introduction to the solemn opening section 'Stala Matka bolejaca' one is entranced by the sensitive playing of the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the conductor's well-judged tempi for each of the work's six sections. Among the three excellent soloists, the soprano Lucy Crowe is quite outstanding. Her pure and perfectly controlled voice possesses the ideal devotional quality required for this work. The young Hungarian Gábor Bretz delivers his two brief solos with great force and authority whilst Pamela Helen Stephen's voice blends seamlessly with that of Lucy Crowe in the tender third section 'Matko, zrodlo wszechmilosci'.
The BBC Symphony Chorus sing with much precision and assurance throughout, but particularly in the work's a capella 4th section 'Spraw, niech placze z Toba razem' , a section enhanced by the clean acoustic of the recording venue, Fairfield Halls, Croydon while the wonderful plea to the Virgin 'Panno slodka, racz, mozolem' is given its full majesty thanks to the splendid weight of the organ – something conspicuously lacking in Valery Gergiev's recent recording of the piece Szymanowski: Symphonies 3 & 4, Stabat Mater - Gergiev.
In both terms of performance and recording quality Gardner's performance of the 'Stabat Mater' outclasses that on the recent LSO Live version and I would unhesitatingly place it at the top of the list for anyone seeking the finest current recording of this masterpiece.
When Szymanowski returned to Poland in 1922 after a period in the United States he decided to live in the town of Zakopane in the Tatra mountains where he became fascinated by the culture , music and dance of the region. That in turn led to the idea of a ballet and resulted in 'Harnesser' his final composition for the stage.
'Harnasie', often described as a 'Ballet -Pantomime' (on this disc is it is called a Góral Ballet – a góral being a 'highlander' native to the region of the Tatra mountains in Poland) is a work that occupied the composer for a considerable period of time from 1923 until its completion in 1931. It is an ambitious piece requiring a large orchestra, chorus and a tenor soloist. Like most ballets though it does have quite a simple plot. The 'Harnasie' are a band of highland robbers who, led by their leader Janosik (Harnaś) abduct a young girl being forced by her father to marry a man she does not love.
The opening music is both exotic and indicative of the pungent folk-music of the region in which the ballet is set. Szymanoski paints a wonderful picture in glowing orchestral colours of the tranquility and isolation of a mountain pasture with, as Adrian Thomas points out in his excellent booklet notes, passages that immediately recall the opening of Stravinsky's Le Sacre du printemps.
As the ballet progresses and the story unfolds, the music builds in excitement, its raw earthiness effectively conveyed by the vivid orchestral playing and the enthusiastic contribution of the BBC Symphony Chorus. Though Szymanowski's scoring is quite dense Gardner and the Chandos engineers make an excellent job at keeping textures as clear as possible.
There have been a number of fine recordings of this work on CD – including those conducted by Simon Rattle (EMI) and, my personal favourite, Robert Satanowski (KOCH Schwann) - but none have the richness and opulent sound quality delivered by the Chandos 5.0-channel (24-bit/96kHz) recording on this SACD.
Recommended without reservation
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