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A Polish Kaleidoscope
Ignacy Feliks DOBRZYŃSKY (1807-1867)

Rondo alla Polacca op. 6 [10:44]
Maurycy MOSZKOWSKI (1854-1925)
Kaleidoscope op. 24 [15:03]
Juliusz ZARĘBSKI (1854-1885)
Deux morceaux en forme de Mazurka op. 5 [10:24]
Roman PALESTER (1907-19890
Sonatina for piano four hands (1940) [12:38]
Ravel Piano Duo (Agnieszka Kozło, Katarzyna Ewa Sokołowska)
rec. November 2014 Concert Hall of the Opole Philharmonic, Opole, Poland
DUX 1174 [48:53]

Dux is a Polish company based in the capital, Warsaw, and naturally enough wants to promote the cause of its indigenous composers, as this CD’s title suggests – ‘A Polish Kaleidoscope’. Krzysztof Komarnicki, in his extremely comprehensive and informative sleeve-notes, translated by Michał Kubicki, writes: ‘There is a great deal of excellent (Polish) music outside the staple philharmonic repertoire which calls for our attention these days. … When it comes to Polish musical culture, it is indeed surprising that composers such as Karol Lipiński, Jan Nepomucen Bobrowicz, lgnacy Feliks Dobrzyński or Juliusz Zarębski … have been virtually neglected, whereas other first-rate composers, such as Aleksander Tansman, Maurycy Moszkowski and Roman Palester, have been recklessly lost to other nations, those that can boast of a profusion of their own composers.’ Seen perhaps through a possibly unbiased eye, it might be as much about the intrinsic quality of the music itself.

Naturally, earlier Polish composers, especially pianists, have always had to wrestle with the shadow of Chopin; should they try to emulate his talents they most surely fail – should they attempt to compose in a different style altogether, they find themselves equally unsuccessful. Dobrzyński, for example, was no less appreciated during his lifetime than Chopin, since, like the latter, he veered more towards the style of Hummel, while arguably one of the most potentially gifted Poles – Zarębski – died at an even younger age than Chopin, and thus his equally-promising talent never got the chance to develop.

In his notes, Komarnicki provides extensive biographical information for each composer represented, but suffice to say that Dobrzyński’s life was interwoven with Chopin’s, both composers having studied composition with Jósef Elsner. Unsurprisingly then, Dobrzyński’s Rondo alla Polacca in E flat major (1827) is crammed full of brilliant pianistic invention, with semiquaver passages and even-faster ones in semiquaver triplets, and there is always a sense that Chopin’s Grande Polonaise Brillante (1831) (in the same key) is never far off, though, interestingly, it was Dobrzyński’s work that appeared first. Like Chopin’s it was originally intended to have an orchestral accompaniment which, as with Chopin’s, is rudimentary, rather than symphonic, since this was what was expected at the time, and it was only in 1836 that Dobrzyński, in an attempt to make his work more popular, produced this piano-four-hands version. In effect, the result is a composition for the ‘primo’s’ (top-pianist) right hand, accompanied by his left, and the two hands of his ‘secondo’ (bottom-pianist) partner. Irrespective, it’s a pure delight to listen to, and would be a most entertaining item in any four-hand recital.

Moszkowski, probably the most familiar name on the CD, never renounced his Polish roots, even though he has sometimes been regarded as German, given that he was born in Breslau, now Wrocław, from where the family moved to Dresden, and where he studied at the city’s conservatory. As a composer, while there are often clear links with his Polish homeland, his was a more cosmopolitan outlook, with a particular penchant for Spain and its music. Moszkowski was an outstanding composer of salon music and his Kaleidoscope Suite (1904) is a perfect example of the genre. The effect is always aesthetically appealing, though, as with much of the composer’s highly-attractive music, it is technically demanding, and not really for the amateur player. The first piece (Molto Allegro e con fuoco) is a charming perpetuum mobile, while the second (Presto), and thus at an even faster tempo, imitates the sound of a Spanish guitar. The third (Andante) has a delightfully simple melodic line contrasted with a somewhat more elaborate counter-melody, and some lush harmony and suspensions along the way. The fourth (Allegro moderato e grazioso) harks back to dance patterns, even though here the composer defines only the tempo – perhaps a kind of polonaise-bolero amalgam? The fifth (Allegro con spirito) is an equally charming étude-like little number, reminiscent of one of Chopin’s more extensive examples, which is followed by a genuine Polish Mazurka (Mesto) appropriately in the minor key, which seeks to emphasise its hauntingly lyrical appeal. The final miniature (Tempo di Valse) is, in fact, the longest in the cycle, a spectacular salon-waltz which is the only dance movement that is explicitly defined as such – all in all a truly agreeable little confection.

Zarębski, managed to complete the entire six-year course at the Vienna Conservatory in just two years, and subsequently gained a diploma as an extramural student in St Petersburg, before his stay in Rome from 1874-75 where, apart from perfecting his skills under the guidance of Liszt – something that proved the most important thing in Zarębski’s development – especially as Liszt put in a good word for him with his publisher, as well as giving many concerts together. Much of Zarębski’s music is for piano four-hands, which he would play with his wife, Janina. His Deux morceaux en forme de mazurka consist of Ręverie and Passion, and both are interesting from the harmonic and textural standpoints, while essentially couched in Chopin’s fashion, which sought to blend within a single piece the elements of kujawiak, mazurka, and oberek – three of the five national dances of Poland.

Roman Palester (1907-1989) is probably the most interesting contributor to the present CD. He was considered one of the most promising composers of the young generation in the period between the two World Wars, and after World War Two, enjoyed a significant ranking on the Polish music scene. Despite this, he thought that Paris would offer him better contacts with publishers and concert agents, and relocated to France, though not as an emigré. Indeed, he continued to maintain lively contacts with Poland and made frequent visits home, despite often falling out of favour with the new authorities, something further compounded by his financial problems. His earnings as a composer in Western Europe were transferred to his account in Poland but he was not allowed to withdraw the money in foreign currency, and the exchange rate was becoming increasingly unacceptable. Komarnicki fully elaborates on Palester’s subsequent decision to settle in the West, while also giving more details on his output overall.

The Sonatina for piano four hands (1940) – considered one of his most important achievements after the war – is a three-movement work, cast essentially in a neo-classical mould, and reflects Palester’s youthful fascination with Stravinsky and Hindemith and, as such, is not unlike his compatriot, and close contemporary, Witold Lutosławski’s Variations on a theme of Paganini for two pianos. The Sonatina places great demands on the players, since both parts are treated equally, and which allows for some exciting textural change-overs. The opening movement (Allegro giusto) is in a revised sonata form, followed by a theme and variations (Andante con moto e molto espressivo), and a brisk finale (Allegro vivace) with a great tagged ending. Equally, the influence of Bartók can be felt in the lively, driving rhythms, and the development of entire material from a few simple germinal cells.

Whether or not you totally agree with Komarnicki about the relative importance of the four Polish composers represented here the playing by the dazzling Ravel Piano Duo is absolutely first-class. It is immaculately articulate within the part, and as taut as possible in the well-defined and perfectly-balanced ensemble. All of this is captured to sheer perfection by the outstanding recording.

The programme is largely if not totally unknown to the vast majority of us, but there is simply never a dull moment in all its nearly fifty minutes’ playing time, whether in the so-attractive salon style of Moszkowski, Dobrzyński’s perfectly-formed ‘party-piece’, the intriguing harmonic and textural surprises from Zarębski, or Palester’s totally captivating twelve-minutes’ worth of pleasantly undemanding modernism.

It was Lord Byron who is first attested with the figurative meaning of ‘kaleidoscope’ – ‘constantly changing pattern’ – when, in 1819, his publisher had sent him one of the toys to play with. This fascinating new CD from Dux definitely lives up to Byron’s expression in terms of this selection of Polish composers. It’s a pure delight – and there isn’t a Chopin, Paderewski, Szymanowski or Gorécki anywhere to be seen.

Philip R Buttall
Previous review: Steve Arloff



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