Karol Szymanowski: Piano Works

Karol Szymanowski: Piano Works

Despite his formidable reputation as one of Poland’s very finest composers, Karol Szymanowski has never quite achieved the popularity of his near-contemporaries Rachmaninoff, Ravel, and Stravinsky. Yet he still has distinguished admirers, and now acclaimed piano virtuoso and fellow Pole Krystian Zimerman is celebrating Szymanowski’s 140th birthday year in style with a magnificent new recording focused on his solo piano music. “The very first time I played in London, back in the 1970s,” he tells Apple Music, “I made a point of programming a piece by Szymanowski. And by a strange quirk of fate, in the audience that night was a young Simon Rattle, who, of course, went on to become the finest Szymanowski conductor on the planet!” Zimerman’s starting point for his new album was a recording of the three-movement Mythes he made back in 1981. “I’m so grateful Deutsche Grammophon kept this snapshot of my playing from half a lifetime ago,” Krystian beams. “To be honest, I was never that keen on early digital sound—it tended to be very clean and direct, so that it was very difficult to create a sense of mystery. I can still just about recognize it as my playing, although I would probably interpret it quite differently now.” Moving the clock forward to June 2022, Krystian was looking for a concert hall in which he “would have total freedom to make music on my own piano. My good friend Yasuhisa Toyota not only offered me the magnificent concert hall he designed in Fukuyama, Japan, to use at my leisure, but despite the upsurge in COVID cases and attendant regulations, he got all the necessary permissions for me in just three days. I had the most wonderful time just sitting there alone, working through the night playing Szymanowski. It was beautiful—absolutely wonderful. To be honest, I don’t remember having so much fun making an album. In a way, it is probably my most personal recording, the culmination of five decades’ devoted study. “When putting the album together, I decided rather than working chronologically, I would mix four works that best represent Szymanowski at different stages in his creative life. His transformation was amazing, and although one can occasionally detect the influence of, say, Ravel, Debussy, or Scriabin, the music remains very much his own. He had an incredibly distinct musical language, and the more we play his music, the clearer this becomes. Playing this extraordinary music in the middle of the night was a lot of fun. I recorded from 8 in the evening until 6 in the morning, and I really felt as though I was in paradise. I had my own piano in one of the finest acoustics in the world, playing these glorious works!” Read on, as Krystian Zimerman gives us a personal work-by-work guide to this most magical of albums. 9 Preludes, Op. 1 (Nos. 1, 2, 7 & 8) “The nine Preludes are early works, so it’s not altogether surprising to detect the influence of Chopin and, especially, Scriabin here. But the thing that really stands out is Szymanowski’s amazing control of texture and color and his timing of phrases, as though he was entranced. The guy was so young—only 17 when he wrote them—and yet there is this amazing confidence, as though he already knew where he was going. The lugubrious atmosphere of No. 8 is unbelievable: You get the feeling Szymanowski is losing himself completely in this improvisation. I’ve corrected a couple of notes where the enharmonic relations appear suspect, but what an amazing piece of music this is!” Variations on a Polish Folk Theme, Op. 10 “Incredibly, Szymanowski was only 18 when he started working on the Variations, one of the most remarkable pieces ever written for the piano. I first heard them performed by my teacher in 1972, and I immediately fell in love with them. Ever since then, I have continued to study and play them, but only now do I feel capable of fully capturing the beauty of this music—so my recording is the culmination of 50 years’ study. I’m not saying that I’ve succeeded even now, but I’m not getting any younger, so I just have to accept it. And it is not just a highly personal statement for me—it was for Szymanowski too. He contemplated committing suicide around the time he composed the ‘Funeral March’ variation, as he was just beginning to face up to the fact that his sexual orientation was far from conventional at a time when such things were frowned upon. He simply didn’t know how to cope with it.” Masques, Op. 34 “Szymanowski was at the height of his powers when he composed his three Masques. It’s his only piano work to have achieved lasting popularity, so one has to be very careful not to become lazy and fall back on performing tradition. Arthur Rubinstein once told me that tradition was ‘repeating the same mistake so often that it becomes accepted!’ My job, as I see it, is to support the emotional narration of the piece, and to do that, you have to set yourself free from all preconceptions. That’s why, if you listen to the last few pages of No. 1, for example, you’ll hear me half-killing myself because that is what the music requires—it would have been so tempting simply to slow down to make it easier, but that wouldn’t have been true to the music. In a similar way, it took me 10 years of not listening to Horowitz’s recording of the Liszt Sonata in B Minor in order that I could make my own recording!” 20 Mazurkas, Op. 50 (Nos 13-16) “This group of four mazurkas is from Szymanowski’s later creative period, when his use of harmony and rhythm was at its most advanced. It is dedicated to the author and poet Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz, one of the most remarkable Polish writers of his generation. I’m showing my age now when I say I was lucky enough to meet him and his wife, Anna, on several occasions. They even attended a couple of concerts I gave in Warsaw. I think this selection from Op. 50 is the most daring, interesting, and striking of the set. The first begins gently, and then, as if from nowhere, it becomes incredibly animated. But it’s No. 16 that really burns it up—almost like a bar brawl!”

Select a country or region

Africa, Middle East, and India

Asia Pacific


Latin America and the Caribbean

The United States and Canada