WORKS: Stabat mater; Symphony No. 3; Litany to the Virgin Mary
PERFORMER: Elzbieta Szmytka (soprano), Florence Quivar (mezzo-soprano), Jon Garrison (tenor), John Connell (bass); CBSO Chorus, City of Birmingham SO/Simon Rattle
CATALOGUE NO: CDC 5 55121 2 DDD
Here are two of the works most likely to convert non-addicts to Szymanowski overnight. All the ingredients are there: an almost Byzantine seam in Polish church music mined by the composer for his Stabat mater; and the Scriabinesque exoticism that infuses Symphony No. 3: a Golden Road to Samarkand – ‘like opening a gate into some fantastic garden’, as Lutoslawski later recalled.
Simon Rattle’s CBSO forces are supremely equipped to tackle music of this period. Elzbieta Smytka and Florence Quivar are beautifully paired in the Stabat mater’s centrepiece duets. Jon Garrison is an enraptured tenor soloist in the symphony: in the Wieslaw Ochman mould, yet his own man. (What a pity that no insert ever quotes the original Sufi mystic text.)
There are caveats. Rattle’s readings are meticulously planned: the (crucial) section-joins, pauses and climax-building are all admirably managed. Yet Szymanowski’s night-music is arguably more fragile than this: the plants in Rattle’s more Delian garden are too large. Wind and horns are superb, as are the vibrant lower strings in those mesmerising passages where Szymanowski’s sound-world meshes with Bartók and Ravel to foreshadow his own (neglected) stage pantomime Mandragora. While clearer than more dated rival versions, the EMI sound gets squeezed at climaxes, and not all the painstakingly rehearsed Polish words get through. The shy Litany to the Virgin Mary is perhaps the most satisfying item of all. But don’t be put off: try opening the gate. Roderic Dunnett