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Stanisław MONIUSZKO (1819-1872)
Ballet music
Concert polonaise (1866) [7:51]
Hrabina (The countess): ballet music (1859) [18:11]
Funeral march for Antoni Orłowski (?) [11:41]
Civic polonaise (?) [6:07]
Halka: Act 1 mazurka (1857) [4:06]
Halka: Act 3 highlanders' dances (1857) [4:55]
The merry wives of Windsor: ballet music (c.1849) [9:38]
Monte Christo: mazurka (1866) [4:37]
Jawnuta: gypsy dance (1860) [4:31]
Leokadia polka (?) [1:44]
Straszny dwór (The haunted manor): Act 4 mazurka (1864) [5:16]
Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra/Antoni Wit
rec. Warsaw Philharmonic Concert Hall, Poland, August/September 2011
NAXOS 8.573610 [78:18]

Three years ago a selection of Stanisław Moniuszko's overtures was released on another Naxos disc. While I found them generally attractive pieces, if somewhat lacking in individuality or memorability (review), it's only fair to say that my colleague Rob Barnett was somewhat more enthusiastic (review).

This well-filled follow-up release, featuring, as did its predecessor, the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra under Antoni Wit, focuses on what it describes as the composer's "ballet" music – though it would be, I think, rather more accurate to describe it as music for dancing. While Moniuszko certainly wrote at least one full-length ballet score, Hrabia Monte Christo (The count of Monte Cristo), like many early and mid-nineteenth century composers he was also more than happy to accommodate popular taste by shoehorning dance episodes of greater or lesser degrees of appropriateness into his various operas. Moreover, as a jobbing composer he also produced stand-alone concert pieces in dance time such as the two polonaises recorded here. The music included on this CD was all completely unfamiliar to me, as, I suspect, it would also be to most other balletomanes attracted by the disc's portmanteau title. Let me say at once, however, that, much to my surprise, this proved to be a release full of new and immensely enjoyable musical discoveries.

Given that I had been only mildly diverted by the same composer's overtures, why was I much more taken with these "ballet" scores? The answer, I suspect, is that the requirement of writing for dancers may have forced Moniuszko to accept certain creative constraints which actually worked to his benefit. Not only was he obliged to keep to pretty consistent and easily followed rhythms, but he also had to take into account the fact that vigorous physical activity can only be maintained on stage or on the dance floor for a comparatively short time. Compared to those more ambitious overtures, his dances were, as a result, delivered comparatively simply and directly and with greater concision and point. Moreover, this strongly nationalist composer clearly loved using traditional and addictively foot-tapping Polish dance rhythms. and much of this material - including three mazurkas and a couple of polonaises - possesses, as a result, an immediate and easily understood appeal.

Even Moniuszko's tendency to write in a somewhat episodic fashion, repeatedly evidenced in those overtures, is less of an issue in the music on this CD where any abrupt stop/start transition - as at 3:52 in the dance music that Moniuszko somewhat presumptuously wrote as a supplement to Otto Nicolai's opera The merry wives of Windsor - can plausibly be perceived as a take-a-quick-breath-and-let's-start-again moment on the dance floor.

Although the music for Hrabina appears to be longest item in the above listing, in reality it's made up of four separate numbers, so that the most substantial continuous pieces included here are actually the Funeral march for Antoni Orłowski and the Merry wives' music.

The Antoni Orłowski music turned out to be one of my favourite pieces here, even though a funeral march does seem to be a rather bizarre inclusion on a disc advertised as "ballet". Unfortunately, the booklet note provides us with neither the rationale for its inclusion nor any details on Antoni Orłowski himself. Nonetheless, I imagine that the somewhat mysterious deceased must have been a person of some importance because Moniuszko certainly affords him a distinctly grand send-off. It is, moreover, a rather neatly constructed one, with a conventionally doleful dirge unexpectedly transformed (4:55) by stirring brass fanfares and a slight change of tempo into something of an altogether different character, redirecting our focus in an instant from terrestrial mourning to, as it might be fancied, celestial glorification. The result is mightily effective.

Meanwhile, the Merry wives of Windsor dance music is utterly delightful. It's certain, too, to bring a smile to the face of anyone familiar with Nicolai's original overture as the latter's winningly attractive themes weave in and out of Moniuszko's own score. The whole thing culminates in a lively climax (7:00 onwards) that brings in a full battery of percussion and that's played up by conductor Wit for all it's worth - and then some. While there's perhaps not a great deal of compositional subtlety on display here, the overall effect is utterly irresistible.

Given this disc's self imposed limits, there really isn't a dud among the rest of the shorter tracks. While nothing could be described as terribly profound, all the pieces - even, somewhat disconcertingly, Mr Orłowski's funeral march - are foot-tappingly addictive. By the time this recording was made in 2011, Antoni Wit had been the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra's managing and artistic director for nine years and that close association comes across strongly, as does a real feeling of genuine affection for this repertoire. The orchestra's expert performances are brought to us, moreover, in very fine and detailed recordings.

Moniuszko's music - including that for dancers - is still well known and appreciated in Poland where I note that a production of The count of Monte Cristo was mounted as recently as 2005. Was a performance recorded? If so, on the basis of the tasters offered by this desirable new disc, I'd love to see it - or even just to hear the full score.

Rob Maynard



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