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Zygmunt NOSKOWSKI (1846-1909)
Piano Works - Volume 4
Cracoviennes, Op.7 (for piano 4 hands) [21:34]
Mazury – Danses masoviennes, Op.38 (for piano 4 hands) [21:21]
Six Polonaises, Op.42 (for piano 4 hands) [31:40]
Anna Mikolon and Anna Lisewska (piano)
rec. 2017, Studio Koncertowe im. Janusza Hajduna Radio Gdansk (Concert Hall of the Musical Academy in Gdansk)

Following my earlier reviews of the previous 2 volumes of the piano music of Noskowski (Volume 2 and Volume 3), we now reach volume 4 with the music for piano duet. This luckily includes the same pianist as found on volumes 2 and 3, the talented Anna Mikolon, here partnered with Anna Lisewska. As I have mentioned in my previous reviews of this series, Noskowski seems to have written a lot of solo piano music which had never been recorded. The same was true for his piano duet works, at least until this disc was released.

The first pieces on the disc are the ‘Six Cracoviennes’ published as Op.7. Noskowski was obviously very fond of this dance form as he used it frequently in his output for piano and piano duet. These are mostly short, cheerful little works in 2/4 time, full of vitality and in places, rather whimsical. The first starts in a melancholic vein with some lovely minor key interaction between the pianists before becoming more cheery. There is a nice effect at 1’30’’ where the main theme is brought back after a contrasting section. The piece is made up of several contrasting episodes so I am reminded of the structure of something like Weber’s Invitation to the Dance (Op.65) - a chain of linked dances. The second work is much bouncier and more cheerful. This is subtitled ‘Hochzeitsreiter’ – wedding ride and the vitality of the work certainly befits that! Things settle down for the 3rd piece, a little ‘Allegretto con animato’ in F. There is some lovely passagework here with both pianists evenly matched and sparking off one another. This is more smiley music with some interesting harmonic changes towards the end which comprises of a lovely pretty reminiscence of the main theme. Another ‘Moderato’ follows, this is more of a powerful piece than the earlier one in the set, there are some nice minor key contrasted sections and a slight atmosphere of sadness in the middle part with the minor key music gradually transmuting back to something happier. Piece no.5 is the longest of the set at just under 4 and a half minutes. There is plenty of interest here; the opening theme is jaunty and merry and the following section, which make up the work, are full of nice touches, all ably handled by the pianists. This is my favourite work on the disc as it’s just wonderful! We end this little set with an ‘Allegro spirito’ in B minor, full of power and with a sinister introduction before the main theme appears and the clouds lift on a mostly jovial little piece with some contortionist playing required as it sounds as if both pianists are almost in the same register. However, it’s not congested and all sounds perfectly controlled. This is attractive stuff and a fitting conclusion to an interesting and rather charming set of little pieces.

Next are a set of 6 short dances in 3/4 and entitled Mazurkas. The playing here is of a different feel as the structure of the music is more open which seems to give the pianists more time to breathe and less notes to play. Of course, the playing is excellent and spot on in feel throughout. Again, none of the pieces is more than about 4 minutes long but somehow there is a lot packed into a small period of time. The ending of the first piece is rather a surprise; it’s actually rather different from the remainder of the music and is quite powerful in comparison. The second piece is very laid back and you can imagine sitting by a river with a drink watching a group of dancers dancing to this piece. Thirdly is a more bass-orientated work with sinister rumblings in the piano part for the left hand end of the keyboard. These sections present a more elegiac feel than has previously been heard on this disc. Piece no.4 is also slightly mournful, but does not stay so for long. The middle section from about 1’00’’ onwards is bouncier and has a nice lilt to it. The fifth piece is a ‘Poco moderato’ and is strangely muted compared to what has happened before. This is the most tragic music on the disc and is quietly unsettling with the strange modulations which occur frequently throughout its 3’53’’ duration. Having said this, the contrasting central section bounces along nicely and provides excellent contrast to the earlier music. I should say that the themes used in these pieces seem to be original save for the in the final one which towards the end includes the Mazurka by Henryk Dqbrowski (which was incidentally used by Liszt in the unfinished oratorio “St. Stanislaus”). The opening of this is very pretty - this is a theme which will stick in your head so you have been warned! I do really like this set of little pieces, there is much to listen out for and again, some wonderful playing by this duet.

The Six Polonaises which make up the Op.42 set are all subtitled so firstly we have a ‘Meditation’ which is suitably meditative while still being a polonaise in rhythm. This makes for a strange effect and you find yourself listening out for the polonaise rhythm. It is present but sometimes camouflaged by what else is going on, rather in the same way as Chopin’s Polonaise Fantasy Op.61 or Liszt’s late Polonaises from St. Stanislaus (catalogued as S.519) in which in the first piece, the polonaise rhythm dissolves away completely. Anyway, aside from this minor resemblance, none of these pieces are much like Chopin’s works of the same name; they are, if anything more harmonically varied which you would expect as Noskowski was writing more than half a century later. Of special note in the first piece is the ending which is not at all polonaise like and is surprisingly quite miserable in tone. The second piece is called ‘Esperance’ (Hope) and possesses a striving feel to it especially in the second part which seems to push towards something ineffable, especially from 1’53’’ onwards. Next follows a suitably subdued ‘Elegie’ – a touching little piece with only minor hints of polonaise but where they do occur, it is towards the ends of phrases which gives a strange feeling of disconnectedness. That said, the work holds together very well and goes through a variety of moods of varying degrees of sadness and peace. This is a lovely little work which ends far too soon and is splendidly played. The fourth piece is much more genial in character with a very obvious polonaise rhythm in evidence from the outset. Despite being entitled ‘Consolation’ this is not a sad consolation or even a meditative one, this is a positive piece with some nice touches in the opening minutes leading to a more rapid and flowing central section. The opening dance music returns to provide a rousing conclusion with some real power behind it. Fifthly is a ‘Melancolie’ with ‘andante’ as the tempo marking. This is quite definitely a polonaise at the outset but the central contrasted music is much more restrained and is beautiful. The ending is wonderful and sad. The last piece on this fascinating disc is a commanding ‘Triomphale’ with plenty of virtuosity required from both participants. This builds to a large climax after a short introduction and from here the polonaise rhythm is clearly heard. This is the longest work on the disc and to me is perhaps the closest to Chopin in character. It also sounds the most difficult. There are some interesting key changes in the middle part and overall the atmosphere is one of triumph, as the title indicates. There’s a nice “struggle” type of section about 1’30’’ in which sounds almost like a chase but the composer left no notes as to why they are subtitled or the inspiration for these. This gives way to a more restrained section with some very attractive writing in which the theme is passed from one pianist to the other. After some further diversions in key and mood, this gradually becomes more polonaise like before a rousing and positive conclusion. Despite the dissimilarity between Noskowski’s and Chopin’s polonaises, after listening to this set many times, I have been unable to get various themes from some of Chopin’s Polonaises out of my head. Obviously, my brain has made the connection between what is on the disc and the earlier composers’ works in this same idiom.

The cover notes are a little short but contain useful information about this composer and the music on the disc. I am really glad that Acte Préalable have created this series of recordings so that I have had the chance to hear more music by this sorely neglected composer. In character, his music is generally happy with some interesting key changes and it has memorable themes throughout. The piano duet team of Anna Mikolon and Anna Lisewska make an excellent case for these neglected works and their playing together is brilliant, everything is judged just about perfectly. I do wonder if there is another volume of music for them to record, I really do hope there is!

Jonathan Welsh

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