Polish music has a long history, the earliest manuscripts dating from the 13th
century. In the 16th
century Krakow was the centre for innovative music where the Archbishop of Wawel and the King had their own ensembles. During the reign of King Sigismund III – late 16th
and early 17th
centuries – Italian musicians and composers were engaged by the court, Luca Marenzio probably the best known today. But there were also important native baroque composers. Later there was a general decline in Poland, but at least one important Polish invention took place – the polonaise, which became a signature for Polish music and achieved great popularity, not least as a form for piano compositions. Fryderyk Chopin – though he emigrated in his early twenties – is certainly the best known Polish composer ever. Stanislaw Moniuszko
was also an important musician during the same period, creating a national Polish opera tradition. The dominant figure during the early 20th
century was no doubt Karol Szymanowski, but Grazyna Bacewicz paved the way for the generation that after the war made Poland a centre for contemporary music. Names like Baird, Penderecki, Lutoslawski, Kilar and Gorecki are firmly established in the musical world. But parallel with those mentioned there existed many ‘lesser’ names, no barn-stormers perhaps, but fine musicians all the same.
On this disc Maria Pawlaczyk and Weronika Firlej-Kubasik have collected twenty-five songs, spanning about 100 years. They don’t cover overlap the lifetime of Chopin but the earliest of them, Grecki, died in 1870, two years before Moniuszko, who was just nine years younger than Chopin. Koszewski’s third lullaby – the last song on the disc – was premiered in 1970.
All these composers were in one way or other connected to Poznan, which is also the hometown of the two artists. Each teaches at the Poznan Academy of Music. Maksymilian Grecki studied composition and piano in Leipzig and Warsaw and then worked as a composer, publicist and music teacher in Poznan. He died of tuberculosis at the age of 30. His oeuvre comprises 17 songs and eight piano pieces. Moniuszko was a source of inspiration for Grecki. His songs are beautiful and melodious – those who are acquainted with Dvorák’s songs will no doubt feel at home with Grecki. The two were almost exact contemporaries. That he was a pianist is revealed in Bogunka
(tr 2) where the piano is exposed in a long interlude and ditto postlude.
Henryk Opienski was a versatile man. He studied in Cracow, Paris (with d’Indy), Berlin and Leipzig (with Nikisch and Riemann). He worked as violinist, conductor, musicologist, publicist and composer. Between 1920 and 1926 he was rector of the State Conservatory in Poznan, of which he was also the founder. His compositions comprise piano music, chamber music, symphonic works and operas. Between 1895 and 1912 he wrote 18 solo songs, ten of which are heard on this disc. Richard Strauss, Claude Debussy and Hugo Wolf were his main models. But he was not just an imitator. There is a strong personality behind these compositions and in particular the seven songs in Preludes
Op. 13 are so inspired and attractive that they should be more generally heard outside Poland. They are in a class of their own.
This is not to say that the rest of the songs lack interest. Feliks Nowowiejski, for instance, who was professor at the State Conservatory in Poznan during the years Opienski was rector, seems to have assimilated a few ideas from Alban Berg in the four songs Roses for Sappho
. Stanislaw Wiechowicz, best known for his choral music, is clearly influenced by folk music, and his accompaniments are richly harmonized. Ta kolebka
is a deeply fascinating piece. Tadeusz Szeligowski took folk music to his heart but his harmonic writing is even braver. The intense Chmiel
(tr 23) with its devilish accompaniment is one of the best songs here.
The two cradle-songs by Andrzej Koszewski share that folk music character. They are more lyrical and deploy simpler but no less fascinating accompaniments. They are beautiful and in Kolysanka III
the voice is treated as an instrument, singing vocalises over a quite intricate accompaniment.
This cross-section of Polish songs from a period of roughly 100 years is utterly attractive and readers who are familiar only with the composers mentioned in the opening paragraph will no doubt be surprised by the riches that are in store behind the greats. I deliberately write ‘behind’ – not ‘below’! Apart from the Opienski songs very little, if anything, has been recorded before, which makes this issue even more valuable.
The singing is stylish and idiomatic and only once or twice Maria Pawlaczyk is on the verge of being over-parted. Weronika Firlej-Kubasik is a fine pianist and the recording is good. There are quite extensive notes on the composers and bios on the artists. My only regret is that there are no translations of the texts. I guess that there are others besides me who are not fluent in Polish.
Not standard fare but very attractive. The Opienski cycle is a masterpiece and several other songs here are real gems.