Józef Wieniawski is not to be confused with Henryk, his older brother. Henryk was a great violin virtuoso who composed quite a few spectacular showpieces before dying young in 1880. Józef was a piano virtuoso who often accompanied his brother, took a teaching post in Brussels and lived almost to World War I. He was clearly the less talented composer of the two but it’s still a surprise that we had to wait so long for the world premiere recording of his attractive symphony.
The symphony (1890) is a charming piece in sunny keys, and gets better as it goes along. It opens with a flowing hunting-horn call, straight from a pastoral scene. Czech composers like Fibich spring to mind. The scherzo and finale have strong hints of folk music, particularly the polonaise. In the slow movement there’s a little bit of Wagner. Actually, it sounds more like Bruckner, but I doubt that Bruckner’s symphonies were known in Brussels in 1890. In the scherzo, you will hear a quote of Saint-Saëns’ Danse macabre
, then of Beethoven’s Ninth, then a trio section full of bubbly evocations of folk instruments.
We also get a fiery fifteen-minute overture, “William the Taciturn,” a bizarre name if I’ve ever seen one. It’s about Prince William “the Silent” of Orange, which is why the prince graces the CD cover. The highlights turn out to be the very beginning and end, demonically dark passages with snarling effects straight out of Wagner. They’re especially well played by the orchestra; I loved how deeply and menacingly the double basses dug into their juicy part. Conductor Piotr Wajrak, in his booklet interview, rightly calls attention to the brass, “often play[ing] in blocks, fanfare-like. It strengthens the atmosphere of awe and power.”
I’d never heard of Rzeszów’s Podkarpacka Philharmonic Orchestra, but they have been guest-conducted by at least three of the great Polish conductors of the last fifty years: Jerzy Maksymiuk, Krzysztof Penderecki, and Antoni Wit. Their playing, and Piotr Wajrak’s conducting, are more than adequate for the music at hand, and sometimes really striking, like the cellos, basses and brass in the overture.
The booklet contains a biographical essay on Wieniawski, discussion of the music, an interview with the conductor, a few pages of notes on the painter of the cover artwork, and an essay by Jan A. Jarnicki, curator of the Acte Prealable record label, who once again has reason to be angry with librarians. The first time I reviewed an Acte Prealable album, there was an angry note
that a library archive in Poland, which housed much old Polish music, refused to let Jarnicki borrow the scores for the purposes of creating a recording. After writing the review, I had conversations with Jarnicki (“Poland is a very strange country”) and a librarian friend who expressed disapproval of the library’s practices. These Wieniawski scores were also recorded over objections from archivists. I would consider Acte Préalable an accessible archive of the history of Polish music, and they are recording new rediscoveries every month.
The recorded sound captures the bass especially well, but there is a touch of crudeness to it. The worst moment is the very first trumpet entrance, which is badly-focused and bright. However, either the sound improves throughout the CD, or my ears adjusted, so that by the symphony, I was perfectly happy.
This is attractive music for lovers of late-romantic symphonies, often very interesting. If you like horn-calls, folksy dances, and Wagnerian influences, you should absolutely try this. I will be keen to hear the piano music next.