Piano Works - Volume 2
Cracoviennes op. 2 [29:23]
Polnisches Wiegenlied op. 11 [4:22]
Les sentiments op. 14 [13:32]
Aquarelles op. 20 [20:16]
En pastel op. 30 [13:26]
Anna Mikolon (piano)
rec. June 2015, Sala Koncertowa Akademii Muzyczne w Gdansku (Concert Hall of the Musical Academy in Gdansk).

I’ve been familiar with the name of Zygmunt Noskowski for some time. I believe the first work I heard by him was his rather interesting and wonderful 3rd Symphony, subtitled “From Spring to Spring”. I caught this 19th century ‘4 seasons’ in symphonic form on Through the Night on BBC Radio 3 some years ago. On the evidence of this disc and volume 1 in the same series, it’s obvious that he wrote quite a lot of piano music as well, though little data about it shows up on internet.

Piano Music volume 1 was reviewed by Jonathan Woolf back in 2009. The pianist there was the excellent Valentina Seferinova, whose Joachim Raff CD, also reviewed here by Jonathan Woolf, I greatly really like. For Volume 2 we have the pianist Anna Mikolon, who I had not previously heard of.

The first thing that strikes you on listening to this disc is how distinctive a voice the composer had. There are odd hints at Chopin, Liszt, Grieg and Anton Rubinstein, but overall the style is very much his own and it is very Eastern European in mood, as you would expect from a Polish composer.

The disc begins with the set of 8 pieces entitled ‘Cracoviennes’, published as Op.2 and dedicated to Liszt. These are similar to Schumann’s collections of short, contrasted pieces and are utterly charming. None is longer than 5’46’’ and the shortest is only 2’35’’. They were published around the same time as Dvorak’s Slavonic Dances and are an evocation of the Krakow region of Poland, which lent its name to a popular dance. The first of this set is bouncy and happy. It should make you smile as it gambols along playfully. This general mood continues throughout. The second piece is more powerful while remaining within the same happy vein. Anna Mikolon makes a very good case for the music. She is very good at characterizing themes within the pieces and is expressive when needed – a lovely transition about 2’20 in the 3rd of these pieces (‘Moderato’) shows this well. The fourth of the set is again bouncy. Here the spirit of Chopin seems to pervade the slower, more yearning sections of the piece, making a nice contrast to the jolly opening themes which, to my ears, contain Spanish-sounding harmonies. I don’t know if Noskowski ever visited Spain but it seems possible. The fifth piece is the longest of the set and is one which contains an earworm; a tune in the bass which here is well projected and very memorable. This piece goes through a series of slower more melancholic stages before cheering up towards the end with a restatement of the earworm in the bass and then some nice figuration before ending bouncily. The following piece is a ‘Molto moderato’ and seems close to a Mazurka in feel. It also will put a smile on your face with a rather splendid march-like central section which this composer is clearly loth to let go of – it crops up several times before modulating back into a minor key for a quiet ending. Penultimately, we have an ‘Allegretto tranquillo’ which is certainly both of these, at least to start with – it becomes more aggressive in the middle. It returns to the original material later and there is some utterly wonderful playing at around 2 minutes in and also at the ending. The last piece is an ‘Epilogue’. Oddly enough, it reminds me of Alkan. It is full of ferocious difficulties at the start and remains resolutely powerful throughout, with some large leaps and thoroughly virtuoso-sounding music – all of which is coped with admirably by the pianist. Great stuff!

The 9th track on the disc is an utterly delectable Polish Cradle song. It’s nothing like Chopin’s Berceuse – it is thoroughly enjoyable and sounds simple (even though it probably isn’t). The middle section sounds as if it should have words set to it although I would not hazard a guess as to which ones. Interestingly, the notes describe many of the pieces on this disc as “Songs without words”. I would agree wholeheartedly with this statement, since much of the music on this disc fits that description well.

The slightly later pieces of “Les Sentiments”, Op.14, are similar in scope to the ‘Cracoviennes’ although there are only 3 pieces here. The third of these is the longest piece on the disc (although it only lasts 6’43”!). The first, ‘Inquietude’ (restlessness) certainly matches its title. The music leaps about quite a lot and there are many contrasting sections which, despite the title, hold together well. The opening theme crops up again towards the end and also sits in the bass, growling menacingly. It will stick in your head, like the similar idea found in the 5th track on this disc. The end is particularly interesting harmonically. The second piece is a ‘Consolation’, although it bears no resemblance to Liszt’s pieces of the same name. It is short and rather sunny in outlook. Even in the middle section, in the minor key, it retains an atmosphere of positivity. This, too, goes through a series of related sections, all of which are nicely held together and beautifully played. Last follows ‘Resignation’. As might be guessed, this is more melancholic in mood but again, there is an atmosphere of cheerfulness hiding behind the sadness. It doesn’t last long and there is a stormy section at around 2 minutes which contains some powerful forte writing and a pleading theme which stands out. The piece continues with some really wonderful music and playing. It’s generally in a resigned manner with sections of more agitated music before ending quietly with, as elsewhere, some very quirky harmonies.

Next follows another set of small pieces like those of Op.2. These are entitled ‘Aquarelles’ – a title used elsewhere by various composers for pieces suggestive of watercolours. They are varied in mood, more direct and each has a subtitle. No.1 is a ‘Caprice’, a conventionally styled piece with a very odd harmonic progression which crops up around 1’ 00” and again several times later – it sounds to me like a tritone but I don’t possess absolute pitch so might be wrong. It’s not the most capricious of Caprices but it’s pleasant and certainly jumps about, especially at the end. The second is a ‘Cantique d’amour’. Again, it sounds as if it should have words set to it. It is another rather lovely little construction, with a wandering bass for a contrasted middle part. The third is a miniature waltz and is just brilliant. It’s one of those pieces you think sounds like something you know, but due to the obscurity of the composer, you realize it can’t be. The playing here is absolutely top notch and perfectly in keeping with the spirit of a piece that I feel deserves to be better known. The following ‘Impromptu’ is nothing like Chopin’s pieces of the same name. There is nice middle part, with the tune alternating between the hands around 1’ 00” and gradually building to a repeat of the music heard at the outset. It then wanders off somewhere quite unexpected and works up the keyboard before descending in an amusing manner. The next piece is an oddity entitled ‘Vogue la galère’, which may be translated as “Come what may”. It is another short contrasted piece and is fantastically well played. Small fragments of melody float around rather nicely during this piece and there is an atmosphere of calm throughout. Lastly comes a dance entitled ‘La Gitana’. This is a Spanish Dance and it sounds very Spanish indeed. Maybe Noskowski did visit Spain after all? I have to say this is a memorable little piece and I have grown fond of it over multiple listenings. All these pieces in this set are very well composed. They are charmingly played throughout and well worth a listen.

The last 3 pieces on this disc form a cycle published as ‘En Pastel’ and are given subtitles. First we have ‘En printemps’, which is appropriately spring-like. There are lots of arpeggios at the beginning, with the theme picked out in the bass, rather like Liszt’s Concert Etude ‘Un sospiro’ (S144 no.3) or something by Thalberg. There is some lovely shading here in this very difficult sounding piece and Anna Mikolon plays it extremely well. Next follows a ‘Valse sentimentale’. This is another characteristic little piece. Unlike the remainder of the works on the disc, it sounds like something Moszkowski might have written. Here, too, everything is wonderfully played and this really is a rather splendid little piece, excellently interpreted. For a piece with the word sentimental in the description, it’s actually quite jovial! The final piece is an atmospheric ‘Berceuse mélancolique’. This is a sad little piece, but even here the central section is smiling. It ends melancholically and quietly. I feel these 3 pieces are probably the best works on the disc and all deserve a wider audience.

The recorded sound is bright and clear. The piano is perhaps a fraction too close to the microphone but this does not affect overall enjoyment of the music. The cover notes are short but informative and the disc is very generously filled at 81’07’’. I look forward to volume 3. This composer has plenty of interesting things to say and I hope Anna Mikolon will be the pianist as she seems perfectly in tune with his writing. I will be listening to this disc often, as there is certainly plenty here to hold the interest. I will also be keeping an ear open for other works by the composer. Noskowski’s works are certainly well worth hearing and there is little of his output recorded. Luckily, most of what has been recorded is on this wonderful record label.

Jonathan Welsh

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