The three Polish piano quintets promised on the cover are united by their differences as much as their nationality. The one by Lason is not really a piano quintet at all or at least only of the small-Q variety. Also promised on the cover, the Mikolów Chamber Players are in fact the Lason Ensemble by another name. Inside, however, things are as they should be. The generally admirable Polish-English booklet notes describe Bacewicz's Quintet no.1 as part of her "neoclassical trend", but that stretches the definition of the term further than it can comfortably go. In fact, the work hovers comfortably between its Romantic predecessors and modernist trends, not a million miles away from Shostakovich's celebrated G minor Quintet. Bacewicz remains an agonisingly undervalued composer.
It is, however, Juliusz Zarebski's Quintet in G minor which is the real crowd-pleaser - and genuine jewel - of this programme. Admirers of the centrepieces of the 19th-century piano quintet repertoire, such as those by Schumann, Brahms and Dvorák, will not be disappointed. It is a work of bitter-sweetness touched by tragedy: this was Zarebski's last completed work before his sad demise from tuberculosis aged thirty-one, and a conscious swan song. The booklet notes grossly exaggerate its debt to Wagner and its dedicatee Liszt, not to mention its 'wildness' or supposed harmonic exoticism. It is an outstanding work nonetheless - one that may finally be edging its way into the repertoire where it belongs, albeit frustratingly slowly. The Quintet has been recorded a few times before, most recently by Martha Argerich and friends (EMI Classics 6447012 or on a Chopin Institute DVD NIFCDVD002). Arguably, the Polish players of the Lason Ensemble understand Zarebski just that little bit better - this is a thoroughly 'Polish' work - but in truth there is little to choose among these versions and some of the others still widely available. It may in fact come down to sound quality, in which case CD Accord are more averagely placed - whilst more than serviceable, their audio can be just a shade thin-sounding at times.
It seems only natural for the hugely impressive Lason Ensemble to round off their recital with a work by their namesake. Yet Aleksander Lason's Chamber Music no.1 is in other ways an odd fit, especially following the lush late-Romantic harmonies of Zarebski, plunging the unsuspecting listener as it does into the icy depths of post-war modernism. Though Bacewicz's Quintet comes from roughly the same era, her work looks backward as much as forward. Lason's has more of the energy and optimism of youth, and the idiom is more likely to evoke Schnittke's Piano Quintet than that of Shostakovich. In two equal movements and named after the Polish town of its premiere, it is nevertheless a darkly thrilling work, and brings to a satisfying conclusion this worthy attempt by the Lason Ensemble to bring these three important composers of Poland to international attention.
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