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Ignacy Jan PADEREWSKI (1860-1941)
Piano Sonata in E flat minor Op.21 (1903) [34:44]
Variations and Fugue on an original theme in A minor Op.11 [15:24]
Variations and Fugue on an original theme in E flat minor Op.23 (1903) [29:39]
Jonathan Plowright (piano)
rec. Potton Hall, Suffolk, 1-3 December 2006
HYPERION CDA67562 [79:59]

No one has thought to programme these three works together before. It seems so logical but it’s taken Hyperion and Plowright to show us how it can be done. And there’s no doubt that these are commanding, triumphant and ultra-virtuosic performances of lasting value. Plowright has shown his credentials in such works before and he reprises his ironclad technique once again. If one counters my opening sentence with a cursory “Well the early A minor variations are not so hot” then lend an exploratory ear to Plowright’s performance. He can’t convert the Variations to the status of a masterpiece, nor anyway near it, but he brings swagger, wit and charm in equal measure. In fact the whole programme is well thought out and executed with tremendous brio and panache.
But let’s start with the 1903 Sonata. Here Plowright is powerfully and expressively passionate. The hints of Liszt, of early Rachmaninoff, maybe even Reger give the curious a hint of what’s on offer in this teeming and big work. It may sound a mite undigested as to influences but the overriding impression is of sweep, grandeur and intense drama. Bravura intensity meets in both work and performance. Try also the harmonic awareness advanced by Paderewski in the slow movement – hints of Wolf maybe? – though the main inspiration is one of yearning lyricism and simplicity. If the finale has the initially disconcerting air of one of the faster Chopin etudes it soon absorbs certain Brahmsian traits, not least in the fugal passages. This may seem academic but Paderewski returns to fugal procedure to end both Variations. To sum up; a bold, slightly sprawling, passionate work high on dramatic contrasts played with commensurate control and leonine power.
I can’t quite work out the exact date of the Variations and Fugue on an original theme in A minor Op.11 but it was composed quite some time before the later Variations and the Sonata. This is a tale of extreme contrasts and evidence of youthful precocity. The hints of Polish folk tunes are passing but certainly present in variation four and throughout Paderewski unveils a rich palette of suggestive music in this quarter of an hour. There’s a skittish blink-and-it’s gone fifteen second Presto [variation 12] and immediately following it the antique strains of variation thirteen. Number Eleven sounds very much like a funeral march and that’s immediately undercut by the naughty glissandi garnishing Twelve. Paderewski can’t keep still for a second. The work ends in a fugue with a rather academic tinge to it though it’s an eighteenth century academia that the composer mines. Plenty of trills of course.
The later E flat minor Variations and Fugue followed in 1903, the same year in which the sonata was completed. I think this is the most impressive music on the disc, fully half an hour of highly organized, complex and impressive writing. It’s a big work, astutely judged and dispensing with the japes of the A minor. It’s also a serious work but not doughty; it keeps the ear alive at all times. The most obvious influence is Brahms but there are some glimmers of Paderewski’s interest in impressionism in variation six. Before checking the tempo markings I characterised chordal playing in variation ten as “grandiose”; sure enough Paderewski has marked it “Grandioso” which is a small tribute to the veracity and vivacity of Plowright’s projection of the music.  He’s tremendous throughout – brilliantly driving in variation fourteen, gnomic in the strange fifteenth variation and evoking bell peals in variation sixteen with great colour and verve. The complex fugue - Brahmsian in orientation once more – is similarly mastered. It ends a wholly admirable disc.
There are other alternatives for the sonata. I’ve long admired Waldemar Malicki for his performances of Polish repertoire on Dux and other labels – a first class player who should be rather better known, not least in his collaboration with violinist Piotr Pławner. He’s recorded it on Accord but his couplings are different. His performance is excellent if not perhaps quite as sweeping as Plowright’s and not as well recorded. I’ve not heard Wodnicki on Altarus and again his couplings differ – the Tatra Album Op.12 and Miscellanea Op.16.  Kupiec has recorded the Op.23 Variations and Fugue for Koch Schwann but once more the couplings are much different.
This being the case Plowright’s industry and acumen holds a prominent place. Splendid engineering and good notes by Adrian Thomas – I found myself agreeing with each salient descriptive point he made – complete a class package.
Jonathan Woolf


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