To take on such a mammoth task as the recording of Szymanowski’s entire piano output required a performer of exceptional ability, one that can accommodate the huge technical demands of the music whilst elucidating the dramatic changes in his style with clarity and conviction. The journey is indeed challenging, moving from the passionate Romanticism of the early works to the exploratory mysticism of the middle-period Masques, Métopes and Third Sonata and culminating in the more austere folk-like idiom of the late Mazurkas.
On the evidence of these discs, the Korean Sinae Lee certainly has the necessary technical ability to master this repertory; the most testing passage-work in the 12 Studies Op.33 and the fugal Finale of the Third Sonata pose few difficulties for her. Likewise, in the early Preludes and the First Sonata, she projects the music with a real sense of forward momentum and intensity, at the same time managing to bring welcome transparency of texture to the involved contrapuntal layering of works such as the Second Piano Sonata.
Divine Art’s very immediate piano sound emphasises this drive for clarity, but is perhaps less helpful in some of the more ethereal sections of the middle-period works where Lee’s tonal variety is never quite as mercurial or imaginative as that of Piotr Anderszewsi, whose recording of the Masques and Métopes on EMI remains peerless. In the other repertory, matters however are more even. I marginally prefer Lee’s heart-on-sleeve approach to the early works in comparison with the more reserved conception of Martin Roscoe (on Naxos), whilst Martin Jones (Nimbus) is especially convincing in the Second Sonata, Unfortunately the recording quality of both the Jones and Roscoe discs is somewhat muffled, although this enables Roscoe in particular to effect a more atmospheric quality in the reflective sections of the music.
While Anderszewski remains the obvious benchmark for the middle-period works and Marc-André Hamelin delivers irresistibly alluring accounts of the Mazurkas on Hyperion, making a clear choice among the complete sets is by no means so straightforward. Roscoe’s natural musicianship and Naxos’s bargain price is certainly enticing, and there is much to savour in Martin Jones’s playing. However, the better recording and Lee’s passionate advocacy of the early music winds the day, if only just.
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