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Karol SZYMANOWSKI (1882-1937) 
Stabat Mater  Op.53 (1925-6) [23:25] 
Harnasie  Op.55 (1923-31)* [34:59] 
Lucy Crowe (soprano), Pamela Helen Stephen (mezzo), *Robert Murray (tenor), Gábor Bretz (baritone) 
BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus/Edward Gardner 
rec. 5-6 January 2013,  Fairfield Halls, Croydon, England. DSD
Polish texts and English translations included
CHANDOS CHSA5123 SACD [58:36]

This is one of two recent recordings of Szymanowski’s Stabat Mater; the other, which I have not heard, is by Valery Gergiev on LSO Live (review). For years I’ve had in my own collection the recording which Sir Simon Rattle made with the CBSO and Chorus in Symphony Hall, Birmingham, back in 1993 (review).
 
The Stabat Mater is a wonderful work and unlike settings such as those by Rossini and Verdi it’s primarily introspective. Szymanowski set a Polish translation of the Latin poem. Edward Gardner leads a fine performance. He benefits from having three excellent soloists. Lucy Crowe offers heartfelt and beautifully poised, clear singing; her timbre is just right for Szymanowski’s haunting and lamenting music. Pamela Helen Stephen is also very affecting in the mezzo solos. The music for the bass soloist is more forthright and declamatory in nature and the Hungarian bass, Gábor Bretz has the right East European timbre and the necessary vocal presence to justice to the music. The BBC Symphony Chorus does a fine job throughout, not least in the unaccompanied fourth section of the work. The BBC Symphony Orchestra is on similarly fine form.
 
Comparison with the Rattle recording is interesting. Chandos recordings are consistently excellent and pack a punch when needed. This one is no exception but the EMI engineers, working in the famously clear acoustic of Symphony Hall, produce sound that is a bit more ‘present’ and the work’s biggest climax, in section five, which has impressive depth of tone on the Chandos disc has even more impact on the EMI recording. Incidentally, I listened to Gardner’s hybrid SACD as a conventional CD. Rattle’s choir and orchestra are superb - I think that around this time he was programming quite a bit of this composer’s music with them - and his trio of soloists are all excellent. If pressed at gunpoint to choose between Gardner’s Lucy Crowe or the excellent Elzbieta Szmykta, who sings for Rattle, Miss Crowe’s gently radiant singing would get my vote by a narrow margin while, equally narrowly I prefer Pamela Helen Stephen to the rather fuller-toned Florence Quivar (Rattle).
 
With Harnasie Gardner also finds himself in competition with Sir Simon, who recorded the work in 2002, again in Birmingham. This is a score which took a long time to complete (1923-31) and during that time the composer immersed himself in the lifestyle, geography and folklore of the Tatra mountain region of Poland, living there for part of that time. The ballet is heavily influenced by the folk music of the region and it’s consistently vivid in both its scoring and in its rhythmic drive.
 
As with Stabat Mater Gardner secures an impressive performance; once again he demonstrates great empathy with the music. The BBC Symphony plays very well indeed for him and as well as corporate excellence there’s a great deal of fine solo work to admire, not least from the leader, Stephen Bryant, and, especially early on in the work, from the principal trumpeter. The chorus has less to do in this work but in Harnasie the style of singing that’s required is much more extrovert and earthy. The BBC Symphony Chorus sings extremely well, not least in the exciting penultimate section where the Harnasie robbers raid the village and abduct a bride whose wedding has been in progress. There’s also a part for a solo tenor. In his first short solo he is Harnaś, the robbers’ leader. In the Gardner recording Robert Murray is heard as if from off stage. Rattle’s tenor, Timothy Robinson, is less obviously distanced. Curiously, however, when the tenor makes his final appearance, in the Epilogue, although the Chandos notes say that the singer is ‘in the distance’ it sounds to me as if Robert Murray is very much on stage. Robinson (for Rattle) is more obviously distanced. Both singers do well in this final solo but on balance I prefer the sweeter, gentler singing of Murray. Rattle’s chorus and orchestra are superb, not least in the penultimate section. In quieter stretches, such as the opening, Rattle’s famed delicacy and attention to detail are in evidence though Gardner is also very impressive in such passages. Both performances are presented in excellent sound with the EMI recording being a bit more ‘present’.
 
I don’t think Gardner’s performances better the Rattle recordings but in their own right they are extremely impressive. I suppose the bottom line is that if you have Rattle’s performances you don’t need to ‘trade up’ to Gardner - though I’m jolly glad to have both. On the other hand, if you don’t have recordings of either of these fine and fascinating scores in your collection Gardner is an excellent advocate for them and it’s extremely convenient to have them coupled together on a single disc whereas I think Rattle’s recordings of both works may only be available currently in a 4-disc box, albeit at an advantageous price (review).
 
John Quinn
 

Previous reviews: Dave Billinge and Dan Morgan
 




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