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Ignacy Jan PADEREWSKI (1860-1941)
Piano Concerto in A minor, op.17 (1889) [33:52]
Polish Fantasy for piano and orchestra, op. 19 (1893) [24:19]
Ian Hobson (piano)
Sinfonia Varsovia/Jerzy Maksymiuk
rec. Witold Lutosławski Studio, Polish Radio, Warsaw, 1995
ZEPHYR Z122-02 [58:13]
Experience Classicsonline

Search for “Paderewski” on YouTube and you’ll find a fascinating little movie clip from the year 1928 that shows the great man at home at his Swiss chateau, Riond Bosson. That stunning mansion at Morges, above Lake Geneva, offers literally concrete proof of the material success achieved by the greatest virtuoso pianist of his era who had begun life in relative poverty 68 years earlier.
But, like many other musicians who ultimately found themselves pigeonholed primarily in re-creative musical activities – often as conductors or instrumental soloists - Paderewski had initially regarded himself as a creative artist and had devoted a great deal of time and effort to composing.
This disc usefully offers us both of Paderewski’s large-scale works for piano and orchestra: his only concerto - the premiere performance of which he somewhat grudgingly conceded to Annette Essipoff in gratitude for her earlier promotion of his music - and the colourful Polish Fantasy.
I am not sure where Jan Popis, the writer of the accompanying booklet notes comes from, but, given that he suggests that the concerto and the Fantasy “have won the recognition of concert pianists, who never fail to include these works in their repertoires” (my emphasis), I cannot believe it is Planet Earth.
A more accurate assessment on the concerto’s current status was given by Jeremy Nicholas in his 1991 notes for the inaugural volume of Hyperion’s Romantic Piano Concerto series (see review). While describing the Paderewski - and its companion Moszkowski concerto - as “appealing, well-crafted and imaginative… with… high spirits and luscious tunes”, he conceded – though to his personal disappointment and mystification – that it had disappeared virtually completely from the concert hall.
I am not so sure, though, that there is any real mystery. Quite simply, the concerto – and particularly its first movement when the audience’s attention needs to be firmly seized – lacks the memorable Big Tune that is a virtual prerequisite in elevating a Romantic era concerto to public affection and thus into the regular repertoire. And when such a melody does eventually come along – notably in the very attractive central Romanza – it is largely given to the strings while the piano enjoys an essentially decorative role. One can certainly admire Paderewski’s compositional skills – although, oddly enough, I find him more impressive when he writes for the orchestra than for the soloist – but I cannot see many listeners loving this concerto as a whole.
The Polish Fantasy - originally entitled “Fantasie polonaise sur des thèmes originaux pour piano et orchestra” - is a more overtly tuneful piece and a thoroughly jolly romp, though one that has been rightly assessed elsewhere on this website by Glyn Pursglove as “musically rather slight” (see review). It does, though, effectively showcase Paderewski in full Polish nationalist mode. His only symphony was subtitled “Polonia” and he was Prime Minister of the newly-created Republic of Poland in 1919. It’s not-quite-a-full-concerto length might make programming it in concert a little problematic, but on CD it becomes a more practical – and quite attractive – proposition.
Comparing this version of the concerto with Piers Lane’s Hyperion performance - see the first link above - I definitely enjoyed Ian Hobson’s interpretation far more. He employs an extra – and, in context, quite appropriate – degree of rubato throughout and produces a far more idiomatic result. It is interesting to discover that Madame Essipoff’s interpretation was criticised by contemporaries as “exaggerated in its expressiveness” – but Hobson demonstrates conclusively that an extra degree of expressiveness is exactly what is this concerto needs to make its greatest possible impact. Just to take a single example, the full-blooded way that he and Jerzy Maksymiuk - also the conductor for Piers Lane - attack the opening of the finale serves the score far better than Lane’s more controlled approach.
Maksymiuk - who, quite appropriately, himself won First Prize in the 1964 Paderewski Piano Competition - is common to both Hobson’s and Lane’s discs. Hobson also enjoys the support of a genuinely Polish orchestra and the Sinfonia Varsovia - presumably rather more familiar with Paderewski on a regular basis than the BBC Scottish – plays with idiomatic flair and enthusiasm.
Quite significantly, too, Hobson’s disc was recorded at a slightly higher level and with a greater degree of reverberation. As a result, it has an acoustic that suits a grandly romantic piano concerto down to the ground.
One small gripe, though … Zephyr’s marketing people have created - and not for the first time - a drearily monochromatic booklet cover. It would be very sad if the impression that gave were to deter any impulse buyer from sampling the extremely colourful piano playing on this disc.
Rob Maynard


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