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Jan Ignacy PADEREWSKI (1860-1941)
Piano Music: Mélodie Op. 8 no. 3 (1882) [3.00]; Chant d’Amour Op. 19 no. 2 (1884) [3.03]; Menuet Op. 14 No. 1; [4.04] Cracovienne fantastique Op. 14 no. 6 (1885) [3.19]; Legend Op. 16 no. 1 [5.28]; Mélodie Op. 16 no. 2; [5.31] Thème Varié Op. 16 no. 3 [8.28]; Nocturne Op. 16 no. 4 [4.22] (1886-1891]
Sang Mi Chung (piano)
rec. Town Hall, New York City, 29 September, 10 October 2004. DDD
CENTAUR CRC 2758 [68.10]
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I used to have a piano teacher, some forty years ago, who was himself almost seventy years of age. He had heard the greatly respected Polish pianist, composer and later Prime Minister, Jan Paderewski - apparently a very imposing figure - give a piano recital not long before the First World War. My teacher played and liked the music and often gave me a little concert of some of the Paderewski miniatures.

I vividly recall one interesting feature of his playing which was also a characteristic of Paderewski - as you can hear on archive material. This was that, to bring out the melody, the performer would play the right hand by placing it on the keys just a mere moment before the left, a style of playing also common to Robert and Clara Schumann, Brahms and many others but now considered definitely passé. Well there’s none of that here, although it would have certainly worked stylistically. These pieces are offered to us quite straight but quite beautifully. Yes beauty of tone is what is emphasized here both by the pianist whose impressive biography is sketched out in the booklet, and by the company Centaur. This is a fine realistic and warm recording and Centaur are to be applauded for being in such sympathy with their young performer. And what an inspired decision to ask a young virtuoso to play these pieces; she is most impressive, especially in the Sonata.

As you listen to this music you become aware of many of the influences upon it, which makes it illusive, enigmatic but also familiar. There are traces of Robert Schumann and in the Minuets, even of an age previous, say that of Beethoven in his classical phase. The Sonata sometimes betrays Beethoven’s more powerful language and then might shift almost into a quasi-Rachmaninov moment. There is Brahms as in the ‘Thème varié’. Polish Dances are never all that far away, either directly as in the ‘Cracovienne fantastique’, based on a tune from the Krakow district, or indirectly as in the finale of the Piano Sonata. It should be remembered that Paderewski edited a complete Chopin edition and therefore played and knew the music intimately.

If I give the impression that there is no strong individuality to the music then I think that that is a fairly accurate picture. One can only speculate on what would have happened later in the composer’s life if he had not turned to politics. I suspect that a Medtner-like style would have appeared which would have been intriguing. As it is we have to take what we have, and as such it is most attractive and tuneful and well worth performing and hearing.

It is true that there are moments in the Sonata when perhaps one feels that it has overstayed its welcome, especially in the long opening Allegro, but the middle movement is gorgeous and the finale, although possibly a little aimless, really makes an impression.

The miniatures are well chosen and several quite famous pieces have been recorded. I’m only sorry that room was not found for any of his wonderful but tricky Mazurkas with their post-Chopinesque harmony. I remember these from my old piano teacher and because I used to attempt, so incompetently. Nevertheless this collection offers us a sensible and rounded collection.

Highlights for me are; the quite famous Mélodies Op. 8 no. 3 and Op. 16 no. 2 which are typical examples of the composer’s love of a good tune in the right hand with a gentle flowing left hand accompaniment. I hear a touch of Fauré in the delicious modulations of the ‘Chant d’amour’. The slow movement of the Sonata with its questioning harmony is a precursor of Rachmaninov in his 1903 Preludes which, coincidentally, was the very year when Paderewski’s Sonata was published.

The Steinway - appropriately Paderewski’s favourite make of piano - used for the recording is an impressive beast. Its upper register is sensitive and lyrical when necessary - and it is very necessary in this basically melodic music. It is particularly rich in the bass.

I hope that this disc attracts attention. This is mostly unpretentious music but it has considerable charm. In the Sonata we have quite a powerful work that would be well worth the effort of any performer looking for an unusual challenge.

Gary Higginson



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