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Stanisław MONIUSZKO (1819-72)
String Quartet No. 1 in D Major [16:12]
String Quartet No. 2 in F Major [15:12]
Juliusz ZARĘBSKI (1854-85)
Piano Quintet in G minor, Op. 34 [34:55]
Plawner Quintet
rec. 2018, Andreskirche, Berlin/Wannsee, Germany
CPO 555124-2 [66:27]

Of the two Polish composers featured on this disc, perhaps Stanisław Moniuszko is the better-known, mainly for his operas, of which I have a disc of overtures again on CPO (999 113-2), whereas Juliusz Zarębski is a name I do not recognise at all, although he seems to have been held in high regard as a composer and pianist, Liszt and Borodin being among his admirers. It seems that his G minor Piano Quintet, the one recorded here, is the work for which he is chiefly remembered and is certainly the most often recorded.

Moniuszko was born in Ubiel, then in the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth but now in Belarus, into a family of wealthy landowners; indeed, there is a bust to him on a street in Vilnius. He showed some aptitude in music as a child and after private piano lessons was sent to Berlin Sing-Akademie for more formal studies, including composition with the academy’s director Carl Friedrich Rungenhagen. On completion of his studies, he returned to Poland where in 1840 he married; he then took up a position as organist in Vilnius where he and his growing family were at the heart of the musical life of the city. He not only played the organ but also became an important teacher as well as performer and arranged many musical events, bringing many of major works of Mozart, Haydn and Mendelssohn to a new audience. It is thought that it was around this time when he composed most of his chamber music. His music is rooted in nineteenth century Romanticism, although he is also regarded as a major figure in the growth of a national Polish style, especially through his opera.

In 1842, Moniuszko embarked on the first of his four visits to St. Petersburg, mainly in search of a more lucrative position, but also to find a publisher. It is known that his two string quartets were composed prior to this visit, as the D minor is dated 1839 and the F Major “before 1840”. This has led the author of the extensive and detailed booklet notes to suggest that they “should be regarded as a diptych from his late Berlin study years”. They both show an allegiance to the mid-to-late quartets of Schubert and Mendelssohn, which in a way isn’t that bad. There are no Polish dances here, just the usual time signatures, although the Andante of the F Major Quartet is very fine, especially as the following Scherzo is marked Baccanale monacale. Allegro – Trio adds plenty of variety and even humour in this short movement which lasts barely two minutes. These two short string quartets are attractive and interesting, offering the listener plenty of Romanticism.

Thirty-five years Stanisław Moniuszko’s junior, Juliusz Zarębski was born in Zhytomyr, which again was part of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, but is now in Ukraine, and died there aged only 31. His mother taught him piano and he showed real talent, completing his education at the local gymnasium with honours before moving to Vienna for further study. There he studied with Franz Krenn and Josef Dachs at the Vienna Conservatory, where he completed what should have been six years of study in just two and graduated with two gold medals. He then moved to St. Petersburg where he studied for another three years and earned his diploma; from there, he moved to Rome to study with Franz Liszt, who was to become Zaleski’s great friend and a champion of his music. He then spent eight years as a virtuoso concert pianist, often sharing a stage with his mentor Liszt and performing his own compositions. His career was cut short, however, when he contracted tuberculosis, after which he concentrated on his teaching duties in Brussels where he had been appointed professor at the Royal Conservatory. He continued to compose during this period, producing some of his best pieces.

The Piano Quintet in G minor was composed in Zarębski’s final year, and although it was not published until some forty-six years after its composition in 1931, it soon became regarded in Poland as a masterpiece. What is clear even from a first listening is that the Quintet is the main work on this disc; its bold use of harmonies and development of thematic material place the work firmly in the late Romantic period. It is clearly a work in which the piano is key, more a work for piano and string quartet than a true piano quintet of equals. In it, you can detect Chopin along with the pianistic flourish of his friend Franz Liszt and leaves us with the question of what if he had not died at the age of 31, what wonderful music would he have gone on to compose? Surely, on this evidence, had he lived only another ten years, he would have come to be regarded as one of Poland’s greatest composers, and would be in the higher echelons of the musical pantheon. I particularly like the way that he takes the main theme from the Scherzo and uses it to open the Finale: Presto, thereby reinforcing the cyclical feeling of the piece that he has, if less blatantly, been hinting at throughout the whole work, something which his teacher, Liszt, was a master of doing. This is a wonderful work; even if it is not quite on a par with the likes of Brahms and Dvořák’s piano quintets, it is not that far behind them and should be thought of as a major contribution to the genre.

The Zarębski Piano Quintet is the star here, but the Moniuszko quartets are still interesting and worthy of inclusion on this disc. You get the feeling that for the Plawner Quintet performing as a string quartet is nothing new to them and when Piotr Sałajczyk, their usual pianist, joins them, the result is superb. The outlay on this disc is worth it just for the Zarębski. The recorded sound is excellent as are the booklet notes, although I did find the font size a little on the small size and needed a couple of sittings, as I became tired reading the extensive information included.

Stuart Sillitoe

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