SZYMANOWSKI: Twenty Mazurkas, Op. 50. Valse Romantique. Four Polish Dances. Two Mazurkas, Op 62.
Marc-André Hamelin, pianist
HYPERION CDA 67399 (F) (DDD) TT: 71:32
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AUERBACH: Twenty-Four Preludes for Violin and Piano, Op. 46 T'filah (Prayer) for violin solo. Postlude for violin and piano.
Vadim Gluzman, violinist; Angela Yoffe, pianist
BIS CD 1242 (F) (DDD) TT: 59:06
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Lera Auerbach is a polymath: composer, pianist, poet, novelist, and belle-lettriste. She's won acclaim in all these endeavors and has just reached thirty. I first heard of her when she studied at Juilliard through a private tape of her playing one of her own piano compositions. I heard a well-written, assured piece—dark, Russian, and Romantic—but very little grabbed me. I searched in vain for something personal, individual in the music and came up empty. The 24 Preludes for violin and piano are more of the same. A bit of Shostakovich here, some Prokofiev there. Don't get me wrong: she does these folks very well and one finds moments of great power. However, I'd really like to hear what she has to say for herself.

However, I certainly don't deny the brilliance or the artistic fearlessness behind her 24 Preludes. This is no arbitrary grouping of little pieces, but a sustained totality. You have a prelude in each major and minor key, arranged unusually (Bach, for example, starts with C major and minor and ends with B major and minor in his Well-Tempered Clavier) in major-relative minor order and circle-of-fifths. Thus, the first six preludes are in the keys of C, a, G, e, D, b, respectively. There's also very often a key ambiguity, beginning with the very first prelude, nominally in C major. It comes across more as some weirdly modal g-minor, although Auerbach easily re-establishes the "official" key by emphasizing a tonic pedal point. Also, many of the preludes play with the harmonic ambiguity of relative major and minor. Gestures and ideas carry through from one prelude to another. I haven't gone to the trouble of analyzing the work in detail, but I understand at least this much from listening. There are brilliant individual preludes and at least arresting moments in each prelude—moments where you say to yourself, "This girl is good." However, there's always the feeling that she's about to break through to something even better. It just hasn't happened yet, even though she's a hair's breath away. Furthermore, she doesn't rhetorically vary her devices enough to escape the charge of rehash, even in a work nearly an hour long. For example, there's an awful lot of violin recitative over a low piano pedal point. Even though Auerbach conceives of the work as a large unit, I imagine that if players take this up, they will likely make arbitrary small groups of individual items. Unlike, say, Rachmaninoff in the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, she fails to provide a convincing overall narrative. But what do I know? Predicting the future's a sucker's game. The Hamburg State Ballet has already staged the entire work.

Two morceau round out the disc. T'filah ("prayer") for solo violin takes the usual paths of writing "Jewish" music, but manages to avoid the traps. The soloist becomes, in effect, a cantor. It's a nice piece, but if the name at the top of the page had been "Bloch" rather than "Auerbach," it wouldn't have jarred me. Auerbach composed Postlude for violin and piano on the death of a friend. It's very beautiful, though very short. Actually, it seems to suspend time.

The 24 Preludes call for a virtuoso violinist and pianst. Gluzman and Yoffe certainly qualify. They make a great effect in everything Auerbach asks them to do. I do miss, however, a comprehensiveness—a shaping of the work as a whole—but, as I've indicated, I'm not convinced it's their fault.

Three stages mark Polish composer Karol Szymanowski's output. The first leans very heavily on Richard Strauss. The second brings in a kind of hot-house late Romanticism, marked by languors and oriental exotica and erotica. Despite my affection for individual works, I have very little sympathy with those periods. To me, Szymanowski gets going, finds his true self, only in his third phase—-the creation of a Polish Modern musical nationalism. Inspired by Stravinsky's example with Russian folklore, Szymanoski hammered out a "Polish style," as he said, "in which there is not one jot of folkore." That is, Szymanowski wrote pieces that sounded Polish without resorting to folk material and without approaching his job as a faux na_. Anyone who hears the opening to his Stabat mater, for example, feels the presence of a very sophisticated composer indeed, who eschews no complexity and yet who reaches the listener's heart directly and without any sort of hitch.

The 20 Mazurkas—as everything else on the program—from the composer's final period, have the same general rhetorical goal as Auerbach's 24 Preludes: individual pieces that nevertheless hang together. The difference is that Szymanowski succeeds. One thing that ties all the individual items is the mazurka rhythm, and yet Szymanowski, mostly with a prodigious sense of phrasing, mood, and architectural creativity, varies that basic rhythm so one never feels a limiting sameness. Every one of these mazurkas surprises you, not only in themselves, but in relation to their immediate neighbors. I have no hesitation calling this set of mazurkas the finest since Chopin. To me, it inhabits at least the same realm of merit and opens itself up to as wide a range of individual interpretation.

Valse Romantique and the 4 Polish Dances work at only a slightly lower level as primarily elegant entertainments, rather than the carving out of a radically new music. I wouldn't, however, mistake them for trifles, any more than I would Bach's Italian Concerto. These come from the pen of a master. The finale of the 4 Polish Dances, a polonaise, raised my eyebrows over my ears.

The two op. 62 mazurkas are the last pieces Szymanowski managed to complete before he died, a shockingly young 55, of tuberculosis. They ruminate more than the ones of op. 50. The mazurka rhythm is almost entirely obliterated in the evocation of improvisation. Compared to the op. 50 set, they seem to have far fewer notes, fewer lines of argument, and consequently become more intense. To quote Martin Anderson's excellent liner notes, "virtually all that is left, like the grin of the Cheshire Cat, are those sharpened fourths and flattened sevenths." Incidentally, Anderson's Toccata Press has published an excellent collection Szymanowski on Music, a collection of the composer's writings edited and translated by Alistair Wightman. ISBN: 0907689116.

Hand to God, I've heard people complain about Hamelin's playing here, and that strikes me as ungracious, to say the least. As I say, the mazurkas, both the earlier and later sets, can take widely differing interpretations, just like Chopin's piano music. I consider Hamelin's approach not only valid, but successful. It features, of course, the ungodly clarity of the fingerwork, but more than that, a great propulsive energy. Hamelin really knows how to move the music along. I love the variety of his colors and the unpredictability of his phrasing as well. It's not just that the phrasing is merely unpredictable, but it avoids self-congratulation and the bizarre. It serves and works for the music. However, Hamelin has always seemed to me an artistic extrovert. I have heard the op. 50 set played more intimately (and with less clarity) by a Polish pianist (Hesse-Bukowska) on an old Muza LP. If Hamelin isn't your thing, you might try looking for the other.

S.G.S. (December 2003)