Homeward bound with Chopin and Szymanowski at the Brooklyn Art Song Society

United StatesUnited States Brooklyn Art Song Society Home III – Chopin and Szymanowski: Amy Owens (soprano), Sarah Nelson Craft (mezzo-soprano), Michael Brofman, Spencer Myer, Miori Sugiyama (piano). Brooklyn Historical Society, Brooklyn, 3.1.2020. (RP)

Chopin and Syzmanowski © Joan Chiverton

Chopin – Songs Op.74: No.1 ‘Życzenie’, No.8 ‘Śliczny Chłopiec’, No.10 ‘Wojak’, No.12 ‘Moja pieszczotka’, No.13 ‘Nie ma czego trzeba’, No.14 Pierścień; Mazurkas: Op.6, No.1 in F-sharp minor, Op.6 No.3 in E major, Op.24 No.2 in C major, Op.7 No.1 in B-flat major, Op.30 No.2 in B minor, Op.59 No.2 in A-flat major
SzymanowskiMétopes Op.29, Pieśni Księżniczi z Baśni Op.31

Frédéric Chopin’s heart is interred in Warsaw’s Holy Cross Church in a pillar inscribed with a verse from the Book of Matthew: ‘For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also’. These words could very well have served as the theme of the Brooklyn Art Song Society’s captivating concert of music by Chopin and Szymanowski, part of BASS’s Home Series, a musical exploration of what it means to be from a place and part of a people. For Chopin, Poland as a political entity was a dream, while 100 years later for Szymanowski, it was a reality created out of the ashes of World War I.

Chopin left Warsaw when he was 20, never to return, yet his music resonated with pride for Polish cultural heritage. His Variations on ‘Là ci darem la mano’ for piano and orchestra, which he composed at the age of 17 while a student in Warsaw, brought him to the attention of Felix Mendelssohn and Clara and Robert Schumann. Upon hearing the Variations, Robert penned one of history’s great critical raves – ‘Hats off, gentlemen, a genius!’ – and Clara’s performances of the work introduced the young composer to German audiences.

The first half of the program was dedicated to six of Chopin’s Opus 74 songs and an equal number of mazurkas for solo piano. Chopin composed very little music for voice, and of the 19 songs that he completed, 17 were published posthumously as his Opus 74. In them, he set the poetry of his contemporaries, including Adam Mickiewicz and Zygmunt Krasiński; collectively, the three men were among those who forged a national consciousness among Poles in the first half of the nineteenth century.

In the intimate confines of the Brooklyn Historical Society’s Great Hall, mezzo-soprano Sarah Nelson Craft made an immediate impact in the Chopin songs. She is one of those singers for whom words and tone combine to create a beautiful, bubbling musical flow of emotion. Chopin’s songs are mostly strophic and, in each verse, Craft brought out subtle textural details in her phrasing and articulation of the text. Her face beamed as she sang of the joys of young love, but the heartbreaking catch in her voice when she sang of an unrequited love brought a lump to the throat.

Chopin composed 57 mazurkas for the piano, more than any other genre in which he worked, and he used the dance form in many of his other compositions, including the first song on the program, ‘Życzenie’. The mazurkas are the most Polish of Chopin’s works, although he never incorporated any folk tunes in them. When their great interpreter, Artur Rubinstein, recorded them in the late 1930s, he danced the steps of the mazur, the Polish folk dance which inspired Chopin, to demonstrate to the recording engineers the character and spirit of the pieces.

Miori Sugiyama was Craft’s able accompanist in the Chopin songs, but the mazurkas more fully displayed her impeccable technique and refined interpretive skills. Sugiyama’s playing was elegant yet passionate; her phrasing and rhythm perfectly captured the rubato so essential in Chopin, which Franz Liszt described as the wind playing in the leaves while the tree remains the same.

Although Karel Szymanowski traveled extensively, Poland was always home. Stylistically, however, he wondered far afield, much to the consternation of his compatriots. In his final years, he lived in Zakopane at the foot of the Tatra Mountains, where he endeavored to create a Polish national style, much as Chopin had a century earlier. Szymanowski died in Switzerland in 1937, where he had gone for treatment for tuberculosis, which was also the cause of Chopin’s early death. His remains rest in the Skałka in Kraków alongside those of other great Poles.

Szymanowski’s Metopes are poems for piano which musically depict the three legendary adventures of Odysseus, the hero of Homer’s Odyssey. (Metopes are the rectangular architectural elements in a Doric frieze.) The work was composed in 1915, when Szymanowski was enthralled with Sicily, North Africa and the Middle East. Stylistically, they show the influence that the music of Debussy and Ravel had on Szymanowski at that time.

These are virtuosic works, which have been popular with pianists since they were first published in 1922; their challenges were belied by the ease with which pianist Spencer Myer performed them. Into the swirling arpeggios and bewitching melodies, Myer injected an element of surprise. The fortississimos were impressive not only for the crashing sound that Myer conjured from the keyboard, but also for the intensity of the emotion that he generated.

The vocal line of Szymanowski’s Pieśni Księżniczi z Baśni starts high and soars into the stratosphere where soprano Amy Owen’s voice reigns supreme. The six songs that comprise the cycle are to texts by the composer’s sister, Zofia, in which a fairy tale princess remains an enigma, but the exotic world in which she lives is depicted in colorful and glittering music. Owens dispatched the trills and rapid runs with brilliance and ease, but it was the descending arpeggios that appear throughout the songs that were so breathtakingly beautiful, as if each note was a gently falling raindrop.

More musical partner than accompanist, BASS’s artistic director, Michael Brofman immersed himself completely into the dream world that Szymanowski created in the six songs. The scintillating colors of the piano enveloped Owen’s voice to create a languid atmosphere of luxury and romance. It is, of course, Brofman’s curiosity and vision, coupled with singers and pianists of the highest caliber, that filled the hall for this musical journey home with two composers who so vividly captured the spirit of their homeland.

Rick Perdian

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