Boleslaw SZABELSKI (1896 – 1979) Toccata, op.10 (1936) [5:40]; Concerto Grosso (1954) [20:23]
Henryk Mikolaj GÓRECKI (b.1933) Three Dances, op.34 (1973) [15:04]
Eugeniusz KNAPIK (b.1951) La flûte de jade (1973) [23:15]
Bozena Harasimowicz (soprano), Zbigniew Raubo (piano), Andrzej Staciwa (piano), Silesian Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra/Miroslaw Jacek Blaszczyk
rec. June and July 2009, Silesian Philharmonic in Katowice, Karol Stryja Concert Hall. DDD
DUX 0732 [64:21]

If you only know the music of Boleslaw Szabelski from his magnificent 5th Symphony, these two works might come as a bit of a surprise, for they are of a neo-classical cast. The Concerto Grosso seems to be pushing its way into the avant-garde which emerged later. The same can be said of Grazyna Bacewicz. Toccata is the better known of the two works presented here. Martyn Brabbins broadcast it in 1996 so it has been heard by some in the UK … if, perhaps, only once. Toccata is a busy piece of Parisian neo–classicism. Szabelski studied with Nadia Boulanger, and, it must be said, it is small-scale in outlook and execution. It’s none the worse for that and is very approachable. Oddly, though, the material isn’t really strong enough to sustain its mere five minutes but the constant chattering of violins and wrong note harmony from the brass manage to keep one’s interest. The first movement of the Concerto Grosso continues this neo–classical chatter but the slow movement is a different matter entirely. This is a very bleak landscape, sparsely scored, with a lamenting tone throughout, which contains a very desolate and shattering climax. The finale returns to the manner and tone of the first movement, and what a contrast to the slow movement it is. The mood of desolation is entirely dispelled with an almost jaunty piece of writing. This isn’t a Concerto Grosso; in reality it’s a full-blooded Symphony which features brilliant writing for a large band. There is no soloistic spotlighting of sections or instruments, so I cannot agree with the note in the booklet claiming that it is, to all intents and purposes, a Concerto for Orchestra. Both works are well worth your time.

We know the music of Górecki very well these days, especially the post-Third Symphony pieces, but here’s a work from four years before that piece, and it’s worlds away in style and sound. Forget meditation, this is aggressive music. The first movement is full of motor rhythms, disjointed themes and the slow movement speaks of desolation, but a different kind from that of Szabelski. With the older man there is a heart somewhere in the background; here all is cold, a vision of a dead landscape perhaps. After all, this was written in the age of the atomic bomb. The finale has the kind of the bluff humour Shostakovich often displayed. The staccato phrases from bassoon and oboe heighten this feeling, and the music grows to a series of repeated chords which bring the work to a most decisive conclusion. This is an odd, perhaps slightly lop–sided work, with three very different voices at work. However, you’ll find it is most enjoyable and approachable.

Eugeniusz Knapik’s La flûte de jade is a setting of Chinese poetry in French translations by Franz Toussaint. The piece was written whilst studying with Górecki. From the very first bar the imprint of his teacher is evident; indeed, this first song could be a discarded movement from Górecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs for it inhabits exactly the same sound-world. It’s interesting that whilst Górecki was still writing modernistic music, his pupil was pointing the way towards his later style! Things change with the second song, which starts in a pointillistic way, and leads to a big climax and a brutalistic continuation of the earlier material. The third song has a prominent part for piano and it undertakes a cadenza. There is then much orchestral excitement before the voice enters, after six and a half minutes of music. The final movement is all piccolo and voice. This is an odd piece to say the least but it is enjoyable and its oddness makes it all the more interesting.

The recordings are very good, clear and with a brightness which allows everything to be heard. The sound is a bit distant but by turning up the volume you’ll not notice it too much. The presentation is good but the translation of the notes leaves a little to be desired. The performances are as authoritative as you could wish for. As an example of recent Polish music, and an insight into the development of it – Szabelski taught Górecki and Górecki taught Knapik – this is a fascinating document and worth investigating.

Bob Briggs