Szymanowski: Piano Works review – glowing jewels from a supreme pianist

Every new release from Krystian Zimerman is a special event, but this one is more so than most. After a recent series of concerto recordings, this is Zimerman’s first solo disc for five years, which, following previous discs of Bacewicz and Lutosławski, continues his exploration of music from his native Poland. Though this selection of Karol Szymanowski’s piano works omits one of the best known, the three “poems” of Métopes, as well as all three of his piano sonatas, it does include representative pieces from all phases of his development. The performance of Szymanowski’s other set of character pieces, Masques, dates back to 1994, but wasn’t released at the time; Zimerman recorded the rest of this disc in June this year, in Fukuyama, Japan.

He begins with four of the 1900 preludes (Nos 1, 2, 7 and 8) that make up Szymanowski’s Op 1, transforming each into a glowing jewel. The stylistic shift between their Chopinesque world and the Masques, composed 15 years later, is stark; those three pieces were written when Szymanowski’s modernism, a mix of Scriabin, Stravinsky and Debussy, was at its most intense, and Zimerman brings to them the wit and bewitching command of keyboard texture and colour that makes his Debussy playing so peerless. A selection of the set of mazurkas Op 50, representing the final phase of Szymanowski’s development, offers a further contrast again, their delicately traced lyricism alternating with the rustic robustness stemming from his explorations of the folk music of the Tatra mountains.

Zimerman ends the disc with the Variations on a Polish Folk Theme Op 10, from 1904, which includes a funeral march (Chopin again) and a bravura fugal finale that demonstrates yet another facet of his supreme pianism, for his command of virtuoso brilliance is just as extraordinary as his control of the most subtle nuances of phrasing and pacing. This is a marvellous disc from an utterly exceptional artist.

This week’s other pick

Another of the great pianists of our time, Nelson Freire, died in November last year. In tribute Decca, his record company for the last 17 years of his life, has released Memories, a two-disc collection of previously unreleased material, recorded between 1970 and 2019. It’s a mix of encore pieces – Gluck’s Dance of the Blessed Spirits, Beethoven’s Andante Favori, Debussy’s La plus que lente – and concertos, which range from Beethoven’s Fourth to Bartók’s First via Brahms, Saint-Saëns and Strauss. The playing, as you would expect, is sparkling and deft, and in works like Strauss’s Burlesque and Saint-Saëns’s fourth concerto, it underlines the fact that in Britain we heard far less of Freire than we might have done, and were much poorer as a result.