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Szymanowski: Stabat Mater; Veni Creator; Litany to the Virgin Mary

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Stabat Mater op.53 - Veni Creator op.57 - Litania do Marii Panny op.59 - Demeter op.37b - Penthesilea op.18 / Orchestre & Chœur Philharmonique de Varsovie - Antoni Wit, direction

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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Szymanowski's choral gems sparkle in this beautiful collection 7 Jun. 2012
By R. Nadel - Published on
Format: Audio CD
Polish composer Karol Szymanowski is sadly under-represented in the recorded catalog, especially as his Stabat Mater deserves to stand alongside the greatest choral works of the last 100 years, including works by Vaughan Williams, Durufle, Poulenc, Pizzetti, Martin, Part, Tavener, and others.

Szymanowski's Stabat Mater is often cited as his greatest work, with good reason, and is usually included with his Veni Creator and Litany to the Virgin Mary. I am familiar with six recordings of his Stabat Mater: two on EMI (Rattle and Wit), one on Chandos, a live recording on Profil, and two on Naxos (Stryja and Wit). They are all very good performances, but of those six, I much prefer this latest recording on Naxos conducted by Antoni Wit.

In his latest recording, Polish conductor Wit provides the more nuanced and full-blooded performance, with idiomatic and fresher sounding soloists, the Warsaw Philharmonic (where he is music director) and excellent sound quality. What comes across better than any of the rivals, except perhaps Rattle, is a sense of mystery not just tragedy.

The subject of Mary standing pitiably at the cross has been treated by many composers. Because of its subject matter, it provides the composer a canvas upon which to represent the most poignant emotions. Through Szymanowski's work, we experience the most subtle of emotional contrasts, confronting the listener with mystery, urgent helplessness, anguish, and resignation - not simply sadness. I highlight that, because it is those subtleties which elevate this work and distinguish Wit's Naxos performance. I can understand why Naxos offers this recording, even though they recorded the same program years earlier.

Likewise, the other choral works included on this disc, although shorter, are nonetheless handled with equal attention to nuance and detail. The Veni Creator is quite dramatic and the Litany is hauntingly beautiful; orchestra, soloists and chorus sound excellent, and soprano Iwona Hossa is a standout.

The recording provides a marvelous sound stage, with detail and fullness throughout, though recorded in the Warsaw Philharmonic hall, not a studio. I think this recording has the best sound of the six I mentioned.

In general, the other recordings I mentioned above, save Rattle's, do not provide the subtle contrasts and lack mystery (even Wit's early recording on EMI). Excepting for Rattle, the other performances opt for much slower and more uniform speeds - overemphasizing sadness and seriousness, to me. Rattle on EMI, however, comes closest to Wit on Naxos, and is quite good, but does not have the same sound quality, and I prefer the Naxos soloists.

In truth, you won't go horribly wrong with any of the other recordings above, but you'll miss the very special qualities of this one.
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