Acte Préalable's extensive catalogue features a lot of music either by composers likely to be known only within Poland, or less well-known repertoire by Polish names somewhat more familiar to the CD-buying public.
At the start of the sleeve-note – and repeated on the back of the jewel case – the label asks the obvious question: ‘Who was Oskar Kolberg?’ They go on to explain in less than idiomatic English, that, and I quote: "In the Polish history, he is mainly remembered as a folklorist and ethnographer, a collector of folklore. His monumental work titled The People. Their Customs, Ways of Life, Speech, Folktales, Proverbs, Rites, Witchcraft, Games, Songs, Music and Dances
is a statue-like position in the field of folklore and ethnography. It is also public knowledge that he was also a composer, but there are not many people now who actually know anything about his compositions. Composing music was never the only, or even the main, métier that Kolberg practised. Starting up his professional life, in the 1830s, he played the piano and taught. The bulk of Kolberg’s output is devoted to piano music. He did not find it difficult to publish his works, either; they were in demand in Warsaw among such publishing firms as Hirszel, Sennewald, Spiess, Klukowski, Friedlein and Dzwonkowski; they were also published in Poznań, Berlin and Leipzig (…)"
We can safely assume that Oskar Kolberg certainly knew his ‘cebule’ (or onions) as far as ethnomusicological research went. Whether he should similarly be lauded for his work as a composer, only listening to the works on the present CD, may provide an answer. Yes, he was well-published, but none of the Polish firms mentioned above is arguably anywhere near on a par with other big European players in the league.
While he doesn’t actually make it to Wikipedia’s ‘List of Polish composers’ at present, the site always acknowledges that there may always be omissions. Interestingly the two nearest composers chronologically – Chopin (1810-1849) and Moniuszko (1819-1872) – are among the most familiar names there, at least to non-Polish listeners.
Kolberg’s Six Polonaises
were his Op. 1, and, as the sleeve-note confirms "are not very much like the ones written by the Polish Romantic master artist (Chopin)". The note goes on to add that they "sound like pianistic trifles" when compared with polonaises like Chopin’s epic example in F sharp minor, Op. 44, but that Kolberg’s Op. 1 is ‘much closer to Chopin’s youthful polonaises’. It cotes the "wonderful melodic invention and the work’s spectacular thematic richness", when describing Op. 1 No. 3 in A major. None of the polonaises is in this key, so the reference must either be to No. 3 in the key of E major, or rather No. 4 in A flat major, and which does just have a little more going for it. Frankly, though, you’d really need to be an avowed Polonophile to hear these pieces as anything other than rather uninteresting and samey salon music of little true melodic distinction.
The main work is the Grande Sonata, Op 3
, which apparently is "one of only a few larger piano forms exploited by Kolberg. There are pronounced early Beethovenian influences". The work opens with a short ‘Andante sostenuto’, before the ‘Allegro vivace’ begins. This, according to the sleeve-notes, ‘brings to mind the start of Beethoven’s Pathétique Sonata, Op. 13 (1798). This is really rather an over-ambitious statement as, if there are any similarities here with the works of the great German master, then perhaps, as far as the faster section is concerned, it is vaguely more reminiscent of Beethoven’s early Sonata in E flat, WoO 47 in the same key. Again, as the note reveals, ‘both in Beethoven and Kolberg, there are vertical chords’ – somewhere perhaps where Adam Zbysewski’s English translation of the original Polish text loses some credibility. Agreed, however, there are occasional melodic reminiscences of part of the finale of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata (1801) around the 8-minute-or-so mark.
The second movement is a straightforward Minuet in the slightly remote key of G minor, but with a trio in the home key which has a certain ‘folksy’ feel to it – described here as a possible ‘Slavic minuet’. Listening to the CD thus far, it was the ensuing slow movement – Adagio con espressioni (the expected Italian would usually be ‘espressione’) – that caught my attention for the first time; this after nigh on fifty minutes of music had passed by. It is nicely melodious, and yes with vague similarities to the equivalent movement in Beethoven’s Pathétique, mixed with a little bit of Schubert (1797-1828) along the way. The finale, given its designation of ‘Rondo Militaire’ also hints at Schubert. As the sleeve-note concedes, the movement – rather in salon-music garb – is a ‘little banal’, even if it "wraps up this sonata allegro quite effectively".
If so far there has really been little to set apart this CD or Kolberg’s music as such, then the final Six Kujawiaks Op. 12
might just have enough to say, by way of partial redemption. The note-writer continues: "The vast majority of Kolberg’s works are stylised Polish dances, and among them, his mazurs, obertases, and kujawiaks are the most well-esteemed". The kujawiak is, in fact, related to the mazurka, and again, according to the note, Kolberg was responsible for its emancipation from other such folk dances. Irrespective of the composer’s importance in all this, the Six Kujawiaks
recorded here, while each less than two minutes long, are certainly of far greater interest in terms of their construction and authentic-sounding folk idiom than anything else on offer. The opening example, in A minor, has a definite Chopinesque mazurka feel to it, with its folk-like harmonic progressions. The second, in E flat major, characteristically makes use of the interval of the flattened seventh and has a novel ending. The third, in C sharp minor, combines the rhythmic flexibility of twos and threes with a slightly exotic use of the harmonic minor scale. The fourth, in G major, accentuates the Lydian mode, with its interval of the raised fourth, and has a nice little flourish at the end, too. The fifth, in B major, again makes good use of rhythm, phrase repetition and drone effects, all of which add to a vivid dance atmosphere. The final example, in A major, is preceded by a short folk melody on a shepherd’s pipe – no specific details attributed, in the otherwise comprehensive sleeve-notes in Polish and English, except that Kolberg apparently wrote this after a well-known local theme, a song entitled ‘Matty Came to Warsaw Town’.
According to the opening preface by the great-great-grandson of the composer’s brother, Antoni, himself a painter and friend of Chopin, Kolberg wrote approximately 110 piano works of which just thirteen appear on this first CD.
The liner-notes conclude with the following assertion: "Kolberg’s music is highly engrossing, artistically valuable, and, what is perhaps most important, very pleasing to both the listener and the performer - the latter being quite often and in accordance with the composer’s intentions none other than an amateur pianist.
Without wishing to imply any sense of bias on behalf of Kolberg’s distant relative, the evidence here would rather seem to suggest that Oskar Kolberg was essentially an ethnomusicologist who, steeped in the harmonies, modality, rhythmic and melodic inflections of the music of his native land, was at his best when fashioning these into short idiomatic pieces like the Six Kujawiaks
. The Six Polonaises
show him rather wanting in melodic invention and variety, and, while the Grande Sonate
has some occasional moments of interest, it is again hardly earth-shattering, pioneering stuff. All this certainly makes you realise just how much more talented the likes of Chopin, or even composer, conductor and teacher, Stanisław Moniuszko – generally referred to as the father of Polish national opera – were.
The CD is undoubtedly well recorded and well played, but of somewhat limited interested. It may for example appeal to someone researching a Ph.D. on Polish music of the time or to those with a keen interest in the history and development of the Kujawiak as a stylized dance-form. Any subsequent CD might include something of further interest in the field of other specific Polish musical forms or genres where Kolberg seems infinitely more at home than as a composer per se
. I won’t be holding my breath in the meantime.
Philip R Buttall