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Józef WIENIAWSKI (1837-1912)
Piano Works - Volume 5
8 Romances sans paroles pour le piano, Op.14
8 Mazurkas pour le piano, Op.23 (books 1 and 2)
Agnieszka Schulz-Brzyska (piano)
rec. March 2020, Katoliki Uniwersytet Lubleski
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Since I reviewed volume 4 of this series (see review), I have continued to explore the music of Józef Wieniawski and have thoroughly enjoyed getting to know his chamber works and also his excellent symphony.  Personally, I think it a great shame that someone with that much talent has been almost universally ignored since his death, so, I’m happy to review another disc of his music from the wonderful Acte Préalable label, who continue their tireless exploration of the unknown music of Poland with the fifth volume of this almost totally unknown piano music.

There are two sets of pieces on this disc; first, we have the eight “Songs without words” (dedicated to another rarely heard composer, Adolphe von Henselt) which are divided into two books of four pieces.  These are wonderfully evocative miniatures, lasting between two to five minutes.  The opening piece in book one is in the dark key of E flat minor and projects an atmosphere of mystery as it bounces around the keyboard It is like a prelude to the set and contains some rather splendid music.  The central section, which is a variation on the first, is in a major key and is very touching.  The second piece in the set is a thoroughly delectable Berceuse in F sharp major which deserves to be far better known and would make an excellent encore in a recital.  The ending is particularly interesting, as it side-steps into a minor key for a totally unexpected and rather wistful conclusion.  Next follows a charming and rather jolly little work which is surprisingly cheerful for a work in B minor.  There are some nice interactions between the tune here and the accompaniment all of which are handled wonderfully.  There are small hints of Chopin and Schumann here but this composer obviously has his own voice.  The following B major piece is the longest of the set and is absolutely stunning.  There is more virtuosity here than has been present in the first three of this book and Ms. Schulz-Brzyska is more than capable of dealing with some of the complex interrelated rhythms and leaps which make this a fervent little work that, once again deserving of a wider audience.  I particularly like the innocuous way it starts off before gaining in power and confidence, rising to a very passionate middle section with some very strange and unexpected harmonies amongst the chords.  Things settle down again after that but the work ends with a brief reprise of the passionate nature of the middle section.

Book 2 begins with a peaceful little work in E major which meanders gently around the middle of the keyboard, rather in the manner of a Schumann Fantasiestuck and just as memorably.  The second piece in the set is a “May Song” in A flat, full of lilting rhythms and some very lovely playing.  The middle section has an especially cheerful little tune which has been an earworm for me since I’ve heard it; it’s really very charming indeed and will certainly put a smile on your face.  The third piece is in the darker key of A minor and is a different prospect altogether; the subtitle is in the style of a ballade and it does seem to tell a story.  There are some very odd harmonies here but the overall atmosphere is mostly calm.  There is an awful lot of music packed into four minutes and it takes time and several listens to get to know.  I’ve found it to be the most interesting piece of the whole set – it has plenty of contrast and some unsettling phrases which leave you wondering where it can go next.  There is also a sort of narrative structure to the work which adds to the feeling that the music is going somewhere but you’re not quite sure where.  The ending is especially strange.  This rather splendid set of pieces ends with a two-minute work entitled “with every increasing difficulty”. It starts off innocently enough before growing in complexity and becoming something totally different from how it began.  It’s a suitably virtuosic rousing conclusion to this set.  Liszt seems to be the main influence, here.  This is a really brilliant set of little pieces which I have thoroughly enjoyed getting to know.

The following eight Mazurkas which comprise Op.23 are also divided into two books and all are dedicated to different women, some of whom appear to be minor members of the aristocracy, as was often the case in the time in which they were written.  Mazurkas are almost always arranged in the pattern ABA, so the opening music returns to conclude the work.  The first piece in the first book opens in a very sprightly style, full of cheerful music and some rather fun key changes.  The middle section is definitely more melancholy in character and contains some beautiful playing.  The jolly opening tune returns, as expected, to conclude a really splendid little piece which is bound to make you smile.  Next, follows another happy little creation in D major which contains some very Chopinesque writing at the beginning but manages to remain sufficiently distinct from Chopin’s works of the same name.  Again, the middle section is sadder and to me the hints of Chopin are even stronger before the opening music returns, slightly varied to provide a lead in to the unexpectedly slow conclusion this piece.  Thirdly, we have a much unhappier and darker work in A minor with an insistent melody which winds its way around in the right hand before this gives way to a beautiful major key section before that too reverts to the sadder music.  This is a very odd piece; the sadness seems to permeate the work even in the major key part as if the music is reluctant to be cheerful.  The minor key themes occur several times throughout the work and the ending is almost tragic in nature.  The fourth and final piece of book 1 is again jolly and engaging and starts off with a fun flourish which occurs at each reprise of the opening theme.  This is marked ‘Vivo’ and really goes along at a fair pace, with no shortage of difficulty.  Again, this is memorable stuff and I defy anyone not to smile while it is playing.  Unusually, most of this piece is in the major key and it bounces along happily with several false endings to a very rousing and difficult sounding conclusion.

Book 2 from Op.23 begins with a very slow, quiet, sad Mazurka in F sharp minor.  This is totally different in character from anything we have had before on this CD and the contrast is stark.  The playing here is exquisitely controlled and the feeling of sadness is palpable.  The ending is slightly happier and seems to hint at some sort of resolution.  To follow this, we have another cheerful piece which complements the preceding one very well.  This is the shortest of this set and lasts 3’00’’.  The opening theme, which occurs liberally throughout the work, is not very Chopinesque but reminds me of something I can’t quite recall.  This is a sunny, memorable little work.  The third of this book again manages to pack a lot of music into the 3’21’’ playing time – it also undergoes several changes of mood.  It starts sadly in D minor before transitioning to a boisterous middle section in D major and then, to round things off, reverts back to D minor again.  This last reprise in D minor is more resolute and makes for a louder conclusion than I expected and is a pleasant surprise.  The final Mazurka from this set is the longest work on the disc and lasts 6’15’’.  Despite the tempo marking of ‘Vivo’ and the key of E flat minor, the piece is generally fairly jolly in tone.  There is some very difficult-sounding writing in here as well – this is the most virtuosic piece on the whole disc.  There is a celebratory nature to this music.  There are some slower sections towards the end (around five minutes in) leading to a slightly mad last 30 seconds.  These last few pages have plenty of false endings (I think Wieniawski liked those) and are a complete surprise.  Overall, it’s a very gallant and energetic work with lots of interesting key changes and fluctuations in mood.  In short, it’s a splendid, spirited Mazurka.

There is some extremely evocative and interesting music here and the works here certainly show that Wieniawski was more than just a virtuoso pianistic showman - he was capable of writing some wonderfully charming works as well.  Ms. Schulz-Brzyska is well qualified to help the listener become familiar with his works, as she has the correct temperament to breathe life into these forgotten pieces.  I detect a wry sense of humour in her playing which suits this repertoire very well.  She has no bother at all with Wieniawski’s sometimes difficult piano writing and seems to enjoy playing these works.  I am once again very impressed with Acte Préalable, and if there is enough music written by this underrated composer, I look forward to getting to know what is on volume 6.

Jonathan Welsh

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