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Jerzy FITELBERG (1903-1951)
String Quartet No. 1 (1926) [11:34]
Serenade for Viola and Piano (1943) [8:53]
Sonatine for Two Violins (1939) [17:50]
String Quartet No. 2 (1928) [16:57]
Nachtmusik, Op. 9 Fisches Nachtgesang (1921) [5:08]
ARC Ensemble (Joaquin Valdepeñas (clarinet); Erika Raum, Marie Bérard, Benjamin Bowman (violin); Steven Dann (viola); Bryan Epperson (cello); Kara Huber (piano/celesta))
rec. 26-28 January 2015, Koerner Hall, The Royal Conservatory of Music, Telos Centre for Performance and Learning, Toronto, Ontario, Canada
CHANDOS CHAN10877 [60:38]

These premiere recordings of chamber works by the Polish composer Jerzy Fitelberg constitute volume 2 in the Chandos ‘Music in Exile’ series. The series features composers considered ‘entartete’ or ‘degenerate’, banned by the Third Reich and forced to flee Europe during the 1930s. Volume 1 offered chamber works by the Israeli composer Paul Ben-Haim (1897-1984), which two of our reviewers gave favourable write-ups (review ~ review), again with the Grammy-nominated ARC Ensemble (Artists of the Royal Conservatory, Toronto). All the works here are recording premieres. Use has been made of the manuscript scores, now residing in the New York Public Library, having been donated by the conductor Emil Kahn in 1978. This material he probably received from the composer’s widow, Tamara.

Fitelberg was born in Warsaw in 1903, studied at the Conservatory there and progressed to the Musikhochschule in Berlin where, from 1922-1926, his teachers included Walther Gmeindl and Franz Schreker. When the Nazis came to power in 1933 he fled, first to Paris and then to the States in 1940. He settled in New York, became an American citizen in 1947 but sadly died in 1951 at the young age of forty-eight. Since then he has been largely forgotten, overshadowed by his more famous father Grzegorz Fitelberg (1879-1953), a conductor and composer of some note (review review), who premiered works by Polish composers such as Karol Szymanowski and Witold Lutosławski.

I have to admit that I have never come across Jerzy Fitelberg before, though his compositional oeuvre is fairly substantial, including orchestral suites, film scores, a children’s opera, concertos and chamber works. He was encouraged by the Paris-based Association des jeunes musiciens polonaise, an organization that promoted Polish music. In 1928 it mounted a competition, which Fitelberg won with his String Quartet No. 2. The distinguished jury consisted of Maurice Ravel, Florent Schmitt, Albert Roussel and Arthur Honegger.

On the evidence here, I find Fitelberg’s music, with its neo-classical leanings, immensely appealing and imaginatively inventive. The String Quartet No. 1 was written in 1926, and strikes me has having a strong Stravinskian influence, especially in the two Prestos which bookend the five movement work. I’m particularly drawn to the second movement, a sombre and pensive Andante, which provides some contrast to the spiky and angular opening. The prize-winning Second Quartet of 1928 has proved one of Fitelberg’s most popular, benefiting from the occasional performance in its string orchestra version, which the composer dedicated to the conductor Ernest Ansermet. The quartet version we have here was dedicated to the Pro Arte String Quartet. In three movements, the two outer movements are energetic, and given rhythmically charged performances. An attractive rhapsodic Andante sits in the centre, which the players deliver with passionate intensity.

I was interested to read that the Serenade from 1943 for violin/viola and piano was premiered in New York by Isaac Stern and Alexander Zakin, although it was not published until 1954. Steven Dann and Kara Huber sound as though they relish the music’s alternating lyricism and playfulness — a captivating reading. The Sonatine dates from 1939, a year after the composer arrived in Paris. In two movements, the first is an Allegro with an underlying Polish folk element. The second is a theme with a somewhat wistful air, and four variations, the last being a march. The Nachtmusik, the only work here with an opus number, and titled Fisches Nachtgesang, is scored for the unusual combination of clarinet, cello and celesta. It dates back to Fitelberg’s younger years, penned in 1921 when he was only eighteen. Inspired by the night, it is eerie and shrouded in a mysterious aura. It shows some deft handling of the instrumentation.

This release has given me a great deal of enjoyment, and I’m thankful to have been acquainted with this composer and his music. The ARC Ensemble give masterful and deeply committed performances of these interesting works. They are recorded in sumptuous sound.

Stephen Greenbank



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