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Camille SAINT-SAňNS (1835-1921)
Le carnaval des animaux (1886) [24:16]
Piotr MOSS (b. 1949)
Zoo – suite (1981) [14:31]
Jerzy MAKSYMIUK (b. 1936)
Vers, for string orchestra (2014) [5:03]
Adam WESOŁOWSKI (b. 1980)
Silver Concerto, for harpsichord, string orchestra and the sounds of the Antique Silver Mine in Tarnowskie Gůry (2017) [17:40]
Euphory Concerto for euphonium and string orchestra (2019) [12:00]
Agnieszka Kopińska, Piotr Kopiński (pianos)
Aleksandra Gajecka-Antosiewicz (harpsichord)
Steven Mead (euphonium)
Silesian Chamber Orchestra/Maciej Tomasiewicz, Robert Kabara
rec. 2019, Chamber Hall of the Silesian Philharmonic, Katowice, Poland
ACTE PR…ALABLE AP0471 [73:44]

It’s an impressive achievement by the Polish label Acte Prťalable to have recorded and released this disc within eight weeks. Piotr Kopiński is half of the piano duo team at the helm in the two animal-inspired pieces which comprise its first half, and in the note he claims responsibility for the concept behind the album. A self-confessed cinephile and synaesthesiac, Kopiński was taken by an idea at the centre of Christopher Nolan’s 2010 movie Inception, the notion of planting ‘false memories’ into the unconscious of another. He describes the experience of listening to Saint-SaŽns and Moss’s menagerie-inspired pieces and imagining that “one of these composers has the other’s dream” and vice-versa. It is certainly the case that in the ‘Swan’ movement of the Moss suite the famous Saint-SaŽns melody is right at its core. But in this regard the translation of the notes does little more than confuse the listener – Moss wrote the original version of the piece in 1981 and claims that at the time he was unaware of Saint-SaŽns’ renowned work. He does not explain how the melody got there – perhaps he incorporated it when arranging the work for chamber forces in 2010, but the note makes no reference to that. Perhaps this is the actual ‘Inception’ behind the disc. Confused? Join the club.

Nor does my befuddlement stop there- there are three other contemporary Polish works here but I’m afraid I have absolutely no idea how (or even if) they have been shoe-horned into the titular concept; one commemorates a young scout for the Polish Resistance who was murdered by the Nazis in 1944, another celebrates (quite literally) a historic Silesian silver mine and the third is a concerto for euphonium. The note simply provides an outline of these pieces and seemingly implies no connection to the disc’s overriding concept. I am happy to be enlightened in the (more than possible) event that I have overlooked something, but the ragged translations really do not help. Mercifully folk tend not to buy CDs just for the notes, so I’ll draw a line under them for now and comment on the music.

This is not the most polished Carnaval I’ve ever heard, but the performance oozes earthiness and personality. The Polish string sound that is familiar in many local recordings of Gorecki, Lutoslawski and Penderecki dominates here - notably in Poules et Coqs. The pianos are at times sound rather forward in the mix, likewise the percussion. (The recording in general seems a little too spacious and resonant). The double-bass solo in L'…lťphant is wonderfully characterful. L’Aquarium lilts and flows somnambulantly. The cellist’s intonation in the aforementioned Le Cygne wavers a little. Technical quibbles aside, I really did enjoy this account – not a library choice perhaps, but still great fun. In any case it’s an impossibility not to get some joy out of this wonderful piece. The pianists seem very fine – likewise the percussionists.

In the recent past I’ve encountered a few big orchestral works by Piotr Moss, the pick of which was certainly Voyage, an imaginative double harp concerto. The Zoo-Suite was originally written after an unplanned trip to Warsaw Zoo. It comprises five character pieces which each last between two and a half and three minutes, while its humour is more raucous and edgy than Saint-SaŽns’ famous sequence. Moss gets the most out of his colourful technique although the Suite is not completely free of astringency. Thus in the glittering Aquarium some scything harmonies suggest that all is not calm below the surface, while the languid lyricism that underpins Flamingoes is hardly diatonic. It will surprise few that the spiky, sardonic material at the heart of the Vultures movement was intended as a tart hommage to local critics. As mentioned, the Swan is based on Saint-SaŽns famous cello solo; it’s quickly subverted by interference from noisy neighbours, and draws on Swan Lake, pop music and contemporary Polish elements to make its point. The final movement, Monkeys is easily the most successful in terms of projecting the species’ stereotypically mischievous character; it’s a collage that layers all sorts of influences including early rock and roll, jazz, modernism, and I’m sure Saint-SaŽns is there again in the pianos, but maybe that’s my own free association. The Zoo-Suite is colourful and approachable, nor did I detect any obvious shortcomings in its sound or production.

Jerzy Maksymiuk was for many years well-known to British audiences as the esteemed conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. Like his late older compatriot Stanislaw Skrowaczewski, Maksymiuk is also an accomplished composer and Vers was inspired by the fate of Hanna Czaki, a young member of the Polish resistance who defied the Gestapo’s demands to betray her fellow fighters and was inevitably executed. Vers is a tautly argued and terse miniature in ABA form for strings; the humane austerity of its outer sections recalls Frank Martin, whereas the choppy repeated notes at its centre suggest another Swiss master, Arthur Honegger. It’s an effective miniature performed with spirit and precision, although once more I have no idea how it fits into this programme.

Inception concludes with a pair of slick and unusual concertante pieces from a resourceful composer whose name is completely unfamiliar to me, Adam Wesołowski. The Silver Concerto celebrates an antique silver mine in the Silesian town of Tarnowskie Gůry, and is cleverly based upon notes and intervals derived from series of letters (eg Ag, the chemical symbol for silver) and numbers (significant dates in the history of the town, the atomic number of silver etc) which are pertinent to the story of the mine. It also incorporates taped sounds recorded in and around the mine itself. Musique concrŤte this is not, though; the Silver Concerto is unashamedly tuneful and would doubtless provide an effective soundtrack for a TV documentary about the attraction. It begins with a winsome melody in slow waltz time; watery sounds taped underground add a peculiar element to the texture and although the music is certainly attractive it is rather cavernously recorded. The Presto is built upon driving ostinati in the strings which scurry hither and thither effectively, though the taped contributions could have been more subtly incorporated. The solemn tread of the Andante armonioso is conceals a stately melody of grave beauty, but here the taped interpolations seem to be especially intrusive and literally inundate the quieter music. The rapid finale is a foot-stomping stick-beating folk dance. It’s gawky yet exciting, and while the contributions of both soloist and orchestra seem excellent, the sound balance just sounds wrong – given the quick turnover of the disc one wonders if this aspect could not have been more carefully addressed with a bit more time.

In the concluding work, English euphonium star Steven Mead lends his skills to Wesołowski’s Euphory (Euphoric) Concerto. The composer most certainly has a fine ear for melody and the theme of the opening Andante certainly lingers. The music is pleasant and undemanding if a little predictable. More unusual is the central Allegretto con amore which features the soloist using his instrument as both a percussion instrument and a microphone; in a movement which packs a lot into its three minutes Mead’s artistry is tested to the max. The lithe Presto con fermazza with which the piece concludes is more conventional (this certainly deserves the ‘euphoric’ nomenclature) and incorporates more obviously virtuosic writing for its soloist. Neither of Wesołowski’s concerti plumb any great depths, but both are unusual in terms of their instrumental and sonic combinations and his tunes certainly get under one’s skin.

This is a most peculiar issue. Each component of Inception has something to offer the listener; the Saint-Saens has character and the more recent Polish works are well-crafted and colourful. Performances are vibrant if a little short on finesse. On the flipside, listeners will not fail to notice odd inconsistencies in the sound, most obviously in the rendering of the two Wesołowski concerti. And I confess I have no idea whatsoever how they, or the brief Maksymiuk piece fit into the Inception concept. Perhaps Strangers on a Train would have worked better as a title. Or The Odd Couplings.

Richard Hanlon

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