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Józef WIENIAWSKI (1837-1912)
Complete Vocal Works
Ave Maria Op. 16 [4:16]
Four Songs Op. 38 [15:35]
Two Songs Op. 17 [7:13]
Six Songs Op. 50 [21:03]
Six Duos Op. 47 [20:49]
Semiramis Op. 52 [3:30]
Katarzyna Dondalska (soprano), Ewa Filipowicz-Kosińska (mezzo-soprano), Tomasz Krzysica (tenor), Damian Chiliński (baritone)
Michał Landowski (piano)
Chór Akademii Sztuki w Szczecinie/Barbara Halec
rec. 2017/18, Akademia Sztuki w Szczecinie, Poland

Although Józef Wieniawski has now been eclipsed by his brother, the violin virtuoso Henryk, he was regarded as one of the greatest pianists of his age. Liszt stated that after himself, Wieniawski was the second pianist to perform Chopin’s Études in public. On disc, Henryk also fares a lot better than his brother. The Polish label Acte Préalable is at the forefront of addressing the neglect. This is their sixth recording of Józef’s music.

Wieniawski was, like his older brother Henryk, a graduate of the Paris Conservatoire. He studied there in 1847-1850. Five years later, thanks to a scholarship granted by the Tsar of Russia, he travelled to Weimar to study with Liszt. After a successful performing career with Henryk, he then separated from his brother, choosing to concentrate on a career of concert pianist. He played many of his own compositions, as well as those of the favourite composers of the period. However, he did not reject the world of chamber music and songs altogether. He went on to enjoy a string of collaborations with the likes of Henri Vieuxtemps, Eugčne Ysa˙e, Pablo de Sarasate and Pauline Viardot, apart from his role as a concert pianist. This led him to perform alongside Liszt in his famous concerts both as a soloist and duettist.

Józef Wieniawski’s music as presented here is deceptive. There are times when it sounds quite straightforward, dare I say easy, but on repeated listening there is a complexity in the piano line that belies the sung melody, and times when this is reversed. Chopin’s influence is clear here, especially in the piano writing, although I do think that these songs are more accomplished than those of the great Polish master.

The disc opens with Ave Maria, but not a setting of the Latin prayer, rather a setting of Domher with the subtitle Prayer to the Our Lady of the Gates of Dawn. This is a plaintive and very romantic setting. The part of the accompanist, which the booklet notes tell us was composed for either piano or organ, seems to be at odds or even compete with the vocalist.

The Four Songs opus 38 are typically late-romantic in style, and display the composer’s immersion in this genre. I particularly like the third song, Ich kehre nie zurück, probably the most emotional of the set, a setting of the Paris-born Polish poet and nobleman, Zygmunt Krasiński. There sadly is no English translation, but you get a real sens of longing from this song. Krasiński is regarded as one of Poland’s Three National Bards of the romantic era. This setting seems to me to have far more imagination and heart than the setting of Victor Hugo that follows it.

The Two Songs opus 17 are noteworthy mainly for the only appearance on this disc of Damian Chiliński. His fine baritone voice suits very well indeed this setting of Co jest życie? (What is Life? - Autumn Song). His silky tone leaves you wishing he had been employed more on this disc. The song, dedicated to a friend of Wieniawski, contains some wonderful writing.

The Six Songs opus 50, for tenor, were the last solo songs to be composed. They set the texts of the three great German romantic poets: Müller, Heine and Goethe. They show the composer at the top of his game. He was perhaps spurred on by those who had set these poets earlier, but the cycle, for me, contains the finest songs on this disc. Just listen to Nähe des Geliebten or Ein Fichtenbaum steht einsam to hear this. The economical and even sparse piano writing highlights the drama of the text.

The Six Duos opus 47 for soprano and mezzo-soprano set German poets. The notes state that the composer also set them in French translations. Despite being in German, they do sound part of the French romantic tradition of duo writing. This is even true of the wonderful setting of Goethe’s famous Wandrers Nachtlied II, which gives new life to the poem.

The final work on the disc is Semiramis, set for chorus and piano. There is a version for chorus and orchestra, performed in 2016 due to the efforts of the publishing arm of Acte Préalable. On the evidence of this recording of the piano version, it must have been a performance very much worth hearing. I hope that it appears on a future release. The piece grew out of the composer’s work with the Warsaw Music Society, of which he was a founder member, and his wish to create a choir as part of the Society. It is a short piece that seeks to tell the story of the fabled Assyrian queen whose story was referenced by the likes of Dante and Shakespeare, and who was the subject of operas by Meyerbeer and Rossini. This piece sets a short passage from the story of Semiramis, which leaves you wanting more. It shows that Wieniawski was at home composing for choral forces, and makes you wonder why he did not compose any other works for chorus.

This is a wonderful disc. The performances are excellent. At first, I found Katarzyna Dondalska’s voice a little too operatic for the songs. As I listened again and again this feeling was replaced with one of admiration for how appropriate her voice is. She is wonderful in the duos with Ewa Filipowicz-Kosińska. I have already mentioned my admiration for Damian Chiliński, but the tenor Tomasz Krzysica also deserves top billing. His are the finest songs, and he performs them with aplomb. The Akademia choir are in fine form. As I have said, I wish there were more for them to do. The pianist, Michał Landowski, is excellent throughout. The disc is aided by the good recorded sound and the excellent booklet notes. The only drawback is the lack of translations. This disc has left me wanting to hear more by Józef Wieniwski, so much so that I will be investing in more of his music soon.

Stuart Sillitoe

Previous review: Rick Perdian

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