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Fryderyk CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Pieśni i piosnki (Songs), Op.74
Henryka Januszewska (soprano)
Marek Drewnowski (fortepiano)
rec. 1988, Polish Radio S 2 Studio
DUX 1497 [46:57]

With this disc, the Dux label allows us to hear a performance of Chopin’s Op.74 songs by Polish soprano Henryka Januszewska accompanied by Marek Drewnowski at the fortepiano, which was originally released by Tonpress but which has long been unavailable. Listening to the recording, one feels as if one is engaging with significant historical, political and cultural currents, and I hope readers will welcome some brief background here, as the liner note by Jan Weber provides just a succinct survey.

The circumstances and chronology of the publication of the songs are interesting. There are 20 songs, set to Polish texts, on this Dux disc. Though they span Chopin’s lifetime – the first composed when he was only seventeen years old, the last written two years before his death – just two of the songs were published during the composer’s lifetime, ‘Życzenie’ (A Young Girl’s Wish) and ‘Wojak’ (The Warrior) in 1837 and 1839 respectively. The composer seems to have considered them ‘private’ compositions; their Polish texts surely made them challenging for singers and audiences, though perhaps they were performed in intimate settings by the composer’s close friends and compatriots. Between 1847 and 1860, Liszt arranged six of the songs as piano transcriptions under the title Six Chants polonais S.480.

In 1857, seventeen songs were collected for publication by Julian Fontana (the Polish pianist and composer who was Chopin’s close friend and musical executor), as Op.74, but censorship restrictions meant that ‘Śpiew z mogiłki’ (Leaves are Falling) was initially excluded: it had been included in a collection of poems about the 1830-31 November Uprising, Songs of Janusz (1836), published by freedom fighter Wincenty Pol. The collection of sixteen songs appeared in Warsaw as Zbiór śpiewów polskich Fryderyka Chopina (A Collection of Polish Songs by Frédéric Chopin), published by Gebethner & Wolff, and, in Berlin, as 16 Polnische Lieder, published by A.M. Schlesinger. ‘Śpiew z mogiłki’ was published separately in Berlin with a French title, ‘Chant du tombeau’.

A further two songs (‘Czary’ and ‘Dumka’) were published in 1910; about the final, unaccompanied song on this recording ‘Jakież kwiaty, jakie wianki’ (What flowers, what wreaths), I could find out little, other than that it seems to have been composed in 1829, for in August that year Chopin wrote to his family that Ignacy Maciejowski, a Polish novelist and critic who accompanied Chopin on a return journey from Vienna to Warsaw, had ‘hit on the idea of composing a four-verse Mazurka, so I set it to music and inscribed myself together with my poet as originally as possible’. This setting of Maciejowski’s homage to pan-Slavic friendship was published posthumously.

Ten of the songs set poems from the 1830 collection, Piosnki Sielskie (Idylls), of Stefan Witwicki to whom Chopin dedicated his Op.41 Mazurkas; eight poems by Adam Mickiewicz, Bogdan Zaleski, and Zygmunt Krasiński, with whom Chopin was personally acquainted, account for the remaining Polish texts. The remaining song is ‘Piosnka litewska’ (A Lithuanian Song), which was set to a Polish translation by Ludwik Osiński of a Lithuanian song.

Although Henryka Januszweska’s biography as presented here might now be a little out of date (she is described as ‘one of the outstanding Polish singers of the New [sic] generation), she and Marek Drewnowski are perfect guides to this repertoire. The soprano uses vibrato sparingly and there is a directness and freshness to the vocal tone which is absolutely beguiling; these don’t feel like ‘art’ songs, though there are presented with artistry. Both performers feel the rubatos and nuances instinctively and communicate the poems’ sentiments with directness and sincerity.

The disc opens with ‘A Young Girl’s Wish’, a carefree and confident waltz with crystal-clear piano trills that breeze along insouciantly and intimations of maturity in the vocal tone. ‘Spring Song’ follows, a dumka, the simplicity and freshness of which is beautifully captured by Januszweska who floats tenderly and wistfully to a pianissimo high G at the close. This freshness is matched in songs such as ‘Death’s Divisions’, a Ukrainian ballad which tells of the deaths of the Cossack and his beloved, and which repeats the same octave rise as a closing gesture of pathos. ‘My Sweetheart’ continues the waltzing motion of ‘A Young Girl’s Wish’ but builds to a more ecstatic vocal climax.
Such songs are characteristic of the straightforward folklorist ambience which Chopin frequently conjures and which occasionally slips, or dances, into sentimentalism, though as in ‘A Girl’s Desire’ it is often tinged with irony – after all, who can say where her heart will stray? Not she! But, if one is tempted to lean back and slumber to sweet melodising, then ‘Sad River' injects a tragic note which immediately stirs deeper emotions. Here is Chopin’s emotive chromaticism: the song begins on a dissonance, with a falling semitone which droops portentously. The poem tells of a wanderer’s dialogue with a river – echoes of Schubert, perhaps? – but even without precise appreciation of the text one can sense a weight and anguish, a burden of a history borne by a nation and not just a lone traveller, which is presented without melodrama: subtle accents in the piano bass and an enrichening of the vocal power towards the close are sufficient. This is a song that, in contemplative moods, I can imagine myself playing on a loop, so heart-touching is its underlying melancholy.

Chopin’s last song, ‘Elegy’ (‘Melodia’), sets a poem by Zygmunt Krasinski: poet and composer loved the same woman, Delfina Potocka. Here, there is a more declamatory freedom to the vocal line which the duo insightfully exploit, as happy memories invade sad times. At times one hears a pride and majesty within suffering, balancing the sorrow, that is familiar from Chopin’s piano music, as in the first part of ‘Out of My Sight’, which sets a love poem by Adam Mickiewicz and is thought to be one of Chopin’s earliest songs. ‘Faded and Vanished’ is a similarly affecting lament: here, it is a homeland that is lost, and the absence inspires, by turn, assertiveness, wistful decoration and whispering longing from Januszewska, with sensitive and assured support from Drewnowski. If the quiet diminishings don’t draw a tear, then the listener has no heart!

The duo do not shy from the robustness of the drinking songs and nationalistic heroism. Exuberant accelerandos and ornamented stamps in the piano transport one to the tavern in ‘A Drinking Song’, which is said to have been improvised by Chopin at his farewell party with friends before leaving Warsaw. Similarly spirited is ‘The Warrior’, which gallops forwards with bravura boisterousness. ‘The Messenger’, another dumka, has a similar folk naivety, one which nevertheless gets one’s toe tapping, and which is not unnuanced by either singer or pianist. ‘The Handsome Lad’ is a joyful celebration of a lover’s beauty and a gleeful anticipation of amatory pleasures. In contrast, ‘The Betrothed’ pulls the rug from under the listener’s feet with its wild chromatic whirling in the piano – fine playing from Drewnowski, whose octave unisons are pristine – and one recalls the surreal grimness of some of Schubert’s lieder, as a soldier returns home to find his beloved dead, but retains his hope that his cries will rouse her from her coffin.

The rhapsodic spirit of ‘Leaves are falling’, and the quasi-improvisatory idiom which switches between various moods and characters, embodies a nation’s restless melancholy. Here, Drewnowski’s forceful bass line and unison shadowing of the vocal line push the sentiments to expressive heights that banish sentimentalism and embrace passion and strength.

The simplicity of songs such as the penultimate ‘Dumka’ is deceptive: the duo are innately sensitive to the nuances and inflections of both text and score. Just shut your eyes and imagine you’re in a nineteenth-century salon in Warsaw or Paris, with Chopin at the piano and his sister Ludwika, his one-time fiancée Maria Wodzinska, or his beloved Delfina Potocka by his side, with his score in their hands and his song in their voice.

Claire Seymour

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