From Szymanowski to The Great Gate of Kiev

A performance of Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition like this under Jurek Dybał, is an excellent introduction to the next festival concerts, whetting the appetite for more music.

The first of the 15 festival concerts began with Polish music. 29 March marked the 80th anniversary of the death of Karol Szymanowski, so his work opened the 21st Ludwig van Beethoven Easter Festival in Warsaw – at the Warsaw Philharmonic Concert Hall, Sinfonietta Cracovia under the direction of Jurek Dybał performed Karol Szymanowski’s Study in B flat minor, Op. 4, orchestrated by Grzegorz Fitelberg. It is one of Szymanowski’s most beautiful works, a juvenile piano piece composed before his fascination with Oriental culture. The Study in B flat minor was popularized by Ignacy Jan Paderewski, but ambitious Szymanowski was not too keen on it, putting this down to his “complex relationship to his own work”. The charming, late Romantic theme of this study was delivered by Jurek Dybał with long, broad phrases. The low strings (cellos and basses) skilfully provided a dark counterpoint to the violin’s sensuous melody, while the woodwinds created a background, enriching the dialogue among the strings harmonically and colouristically.

We know the excellent musician Jurek Dybał from his regular performances at the Easter Festival. A soloist, chamber musician and associate principal double-bass in the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and the Vienna State Opera Orchestra, he is successfully pursuing his career as a conductor, following in the footsteps of such masters of the baton as Serge Koussevitzky or Zubin Mehta, who began their affair with music as double-bassists. Dybał shows a fine hand, a student of the notable Finnish conductor Jorma Panula. Under his direction, Sinfonietta Cracovia has made great strides to become one of the leading Polish smaller-sized symphony orchestras. Already in the Study in B flat minor, the orchestra showcased freedom of sound, attention to phrasing, well-balanced tone, articulation, and expressive musical thought. This made me all the more curious to hear Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition (orchestrated by Maurice Ravel), lined up for the second half of the concert. Before that, however, true to the tradition of the Easter Festival, we heard Ludwig van Beethoven’s Triple Concerto for Piano, Violin and Cello in C major, Op. 56, which featured members of the Dutch Storioni Trio as soloists: Bart van de Roer (piano), Wouter Vossen (violin) and Marc Vossen (cello). This performance revealed two different aesthetic approaches: Storioni Trio and its leader, pianist Bart van de Roer, their playing was gentle and far from expansive – more nerve and brilliance wouldn’t go amiss. This was certainly not missing from Sinfonietta’s playing, where Dybał set a distinctive, robust tone, well suited to “masculine” Beethoven. After the Triple Concerto, Storioni Trio returned to the stage to perform an encore, the sixth movement of Antonín Dvořák’s Piano Trio No. 4 in E Minor, Op. 90 “Dumky” – a nice nod of the Dutch musicians to brother Slavs.

Finally, Pictures at an Exhibition – I was very taken by Jurek Dybał’s sensitivity to the orchestral colour, instrumental timbres, and special effects devised by Ravel in his dazzling orchestration of Mussorgsky’s masterpiece (The Gnome, Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuÿle). I was also taken by a fine sense of timing and awareness of the dramatic function served by rests in the musical narrative. This rendition had the audience pinned to their seats. Pictures… is a suite of ten musical impressions of pictures by Viktor Hartmann, a Russian painter and architect, a friend of Mussorgsky. As a result, the sights evoked by music in this work change kaleidoscopically. The Gnome and The Hut on Hen’s Legs were like some background music to a thriller, The Old Castle intrigued with the tone of the alto saxophone, Ballet of Unhatched Chicks, Tuileries and Limoges. The Market showed off the fine technique of the orchestra, which performed these movements lightly, with wit and charm, especially the woodwinds section deserves praise. The tuba solo and the muted trumpet solo in the Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuÿle movement were not completely flawless as the intonation and articulation were not accurate enough. Dybał also smoothly transitioned the audience from The Hut on Hen’s Legs into the final part of the suite – The Great Gate of Kiev, which sounded triumphantly and powerfully, although the brass overpowered the other instruments.

Anna S. Dębowska

Sunday, 2 April, 12:00, Warsaw Philharmonic Concert Hall