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Henryk PACHULSKI (1859-1921)
Piano Works 2

Fantaisie in A major, Op 17 for 2 pianos [26:18]
Polonaise, Op 5 for 2 pianos [6:47]
Suite, Op 13 for piano 4 hands [16:59]
Méditation, Op 25 for piano 4 hands [6:24]
String Quartet in G major, Op 11 by Anton Arensky for piano 4 hands [20.35]
Va i Ve Piano Duo (Valentina Seferinova and Venera Bojkova)
rec. 5-6 April 2016 Polskie Radio Studio S1, Poland
World-première recording

‘Leading Label Promoting Polish Music & Musicians’ is how Acte Préalable describes itself, and certainly its extensive cataloguefeatures a lot of music either by composers perhaps best known only within the country itself, or less familiar repertoire by names with whom the CD-buying public is already somewhat better acquainted.

Henryk Pachulski certainly qualifies for inclusion here and was, in fact, already a name familiar to me, but from a different era. A snippet of a piece of his piano music had, for many years, been used in the Aural Test Examples of one of the leading UK Examination Boards, and whenever I played it, I was struck by its particularly expressive nature, short though it was. A chance now to hear more of this composer’s work, years later, was just too good an opportunity to miss.

Polish-born pianist, composer and teacher, Pachulski studied initially at the Warsaw Institute of Music under Moniuszko and Żeleński, before removing to Russia. Here he continued his studies with Michałowski, Pabst, Nikolai Rubinstein, and Arensky, before being appointed a professor of piano there from 1886 to 1917; he never returned to his native country. The majority of his output includes works where the piano is involved; for example, he dedicated his Second Piano Sonata in F, Op 27 to Rachmaninoff.

With a pedigree like this, not surprisingly, his writing is cast very much in the emerging neoromantic style of these two Slavic nations at the time. As such his fame matches that of the majority of his contemporaries, with the possible overall exception of Russian-born Arensky, and Pachulski’s fellow-countryman Moniuszko, though here more specifically in the field of opera.

If you’re expecting to hear the harmonic lushness and denser textures of Rachmaninoff or Bortkiewicz, then Pachulski falls short by some twenty or thirty years. But from the very opening bars of the Fantaisie in A, Op 17, there is an immediate appeal and sincerity in the writing, ideally crafted here for the medium of two pianos. Cast in three distinct movements, the opening ‘Andante’ projects an idyllic scene with its attractive and memorable melody moving between major and minor tonalities, before an extended minor-key section ensues, with ever-increasing drama, reflected in the somewhat busier piano writing. This leads once more to the calm of the opening, via some impressive double-octaves, and the addition of triplets in the accompaniment now gives greater urgency to the original theme. The ensuing Scherzo immediately cranks up the virtuosity of the writing with a brief introduction before the delicate and attractive dance-like Scherzo-theme proper emerges. The slower Trio section functions by way of affording contrast, as well as going some way towards providing a slow movement, which is missing as such. The Scherzo returns, seemingly to round the movement off, but is interrupted by a reprise of the calmer Trio, in which mood the movement ends. The Finale starts out with a catchy little tune, a cross between Chopin’s ‘Butterfly’ Étude from his Op 25 set, and ‘La Jongleuse’, by fellow-Pole Moritz Moszkowski. The intervening episodes of this Rondo provide for greater passion and emotion, often in the minor key, and which contrast with the playfulness of the main theme itself. There appears a false return of the penultimate appearance of the main theme, before the composer shifts the key back to the tonic (A major). The theme’s final, slower appearance against rippling arabesques still leads to a spritely and effective dénouement.

The next work is also for two pianos and certainly exhibits all the melodic and rhythmic features that would allow it to be called a Polonaise, some clearly even borrowed from those of Chopin, though very much a stylised work which could have been written by any composer at the time, there being little overt nationalism in the conception, despite its easy-on-the ear and entertaining make-up.

The Suite, Op 13 is the first piece on the CD for piano four-hands, and is also available in an orchestral version. The opening ‘Prélude’ recalls the first movement of the earlier Fantaisie, both melodically and in its subdued, plaintive writing, providing a nostalgic link back to the short example of Pachulski’s work that always held my attention in those Aural Tests days. This second movement is a ‘Scherzo’, with a somewhat ordinary-sounding main theme but a more expressive Trio, which does seem to emerge as one of the composer’s finger-prints – appearing efficient and disciplined in faster sections, as here in the reprise, but really far more at home in slower, more expansive moments, of which the ensuing ‘Momento lirico’ is a fine example. The Suite closes with a catchy, triple-time ‘Scène de ballet’ with running octave passages that recall similar passages in movements from Fauré’s ‘Dolly Suite’, also for the same piano-duet combination, but where the final close is so much more impressive than Pachulski’s surprisingly common-place and weaker close.

The Méditation, Op 25 sounds more attractive on paper, given what the listener has come to expect from the CD so far, but in the event appears somewhat melodically challenged, making a fair use of some interweaving of lines, although this seems to restrict the expressive potential by imposing an almost academic cap on the writing, coupled, of course, with the obvious limitations of two players on one piano, compared to the far greater range of two – and corroborated by the fact that works for two pianos tend to outshine those for piano duet – Rachmaninov’s Op 17 and Arensky’s Op 15 Suites both offering convincing evidence.

The CD ends with the second-longest work recorded, though it is actually not by Pachulski himself, but rather his piano-duet arrangement of Arensky’s String Quartet in G, Op 11. To all intents and purposes it is a business-like and efficient reworking, taking some advantage of the greater opportunities for polyphony and extended range with four hands, over just four stringed instruments. The four movements – ‘Allegro – Andante sostenuto – Menuetto – Finale: Variations sur un thème russe’ – are all pleasant enough, though there isn’t, in effect, much opportunity for Pachulski to stamp the work with much of his own originality, save for the odd glissando here and there. Given that it accounts for a quarter of the recording in terms of playing-time, it’s a pity that something else couldn’t have been found to take its place on the CD.

Notwithstanding this, the performance, as with the other works on the CD, is excellent and stylistically well-judged, while the recording faithfully captures the piano sound throughout. The CD booklet is comprehensive and informative, with text in both Polish and English, and if you merely want to hear more piano music by Pachulski, there’s enough here, even if it’s really just the first three works that have the real appeal.

Acte Préalable produced Volume 1 in 2008 – AP0187, reviewed by Jonathan Woolf in 2009, and featured some of Pachulski’s music for solo piano. The present Volume 2 appeared in 2016, so the onus is really on the label to get some of his other works recorded – and before too long. The Suite for Orchestra, Polish Fantasy for Piano and Orchestra, and his numerous songs, for example, would all seem good candidates for future releases, especially if Pachulski is to get all the credit he deserves, as an all-round composer.

Philip R Buttall



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