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Urszula Bartkiewicz (harpsichord)
rec. 2020, Performance Hall of the European Center Matecznik “Mazowsze”, Otrębusy, Poland
DUX 1665 [73:37]

The disc under review here will appeal in particular to curious minds. For a start, only a very few music lovers will ever have heard of the composers included in the programme. And then some may raise their eyebrows, seeing that music by composers of the late 18th and early 19th centuries is played here on the harpsichord. It seems much more appropriate to perform them on the fortepiano, which at that time had firmly established itself across Europe. However, there are good arguments for playing them on the harpsichord.

Today the polonaise is firmly associated with Frédéric Chopin. However, the polonaise is much older. In the 16th century, several collections of keyboard music included dances whose titles refer to Poland, but they have nothing to do with what later became known as the polonaise. The first dances with the title polonez date from the 17th century. The earliest known piece with a rhythm that is recognizable as a polonaise is a Polish carol from the mid-17th century. Originally it was a folk dance, but in the course of the 17th century it became more sophisticated, when it was adopted by the Polish aristocracy. In this form it became a stately dance which disseminated across Europe. Telemann, Bach and Couperin were among the composers who included polonaises in their oeuvre. Later, Mozart and Beethoven wrote also polonaises.

In the late 18th century, the polonaise was increasingly embraced as the symbol of Polish identity. This was largely due to the political developments, as Poland was divided among different occupying powers. Stefan Burhardt, leader of a project at the Torun University Library concerning the cataloguing of polonaises by Polish and foreign composers, sums up the importance of this dance in the preface to the second volume of the catalogue. "[This] very dance played an exceptional role in the history of Poland: when the latter was at the peak of its power and greatness, the polonaise symbolised the magnificence and majesty of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, while during the days of its collapse and bondage, it lifted the spirits of the nation and gave it the strength to survive".

The collection at Torun University includes around 2,000 pieces, and we get here a selection of eighteen from this important source. The earliest pieces in the collection date from the 1790s, and this raises the question whether they can be performed at the harpsichord. It is certainly true that the harpsichord was still played around 1800. Even Beethoven composed keyboard music for piano or harpsichord. The booklet mentions a piece by a Polish composer published as late as 1818 with the addition "for the fortepiano or the harpsichord". Moreover, keyboard instruments were largely interchangeable at the time. Pieces for piano could be played on the clavichord or the harpsichord. It was up to the performer to deal with those features which were difficult to realise on the harpsichord, especially changes in dynamics. Urszula Bartkiewicz, who started her research on the polonaise in the early 1990s, looked at the character of the pieces: some have such strong features connected to the piano that a performance on the harpsichord would require too many compromises. Therefore the pieces selected for this recording are, according to the artist, fit for a performance on the harpsichord.

The composers included in this recording are little-known. Bazyli Bohdanowicz made a career in Vienna, where he became (in)famous for performances of rather eccentric pieces, such as a concerto, sung by three of his sons accompanied by a whistle and orchestra. He is mentioned in New Grove, but the following three are not. In the case of Heiliński, his Christian name is not known nor is any biographical information available. The two Polonaises performed here are his only known compositions, and were published around 1820. Stefan Jabłoński worked in Lviv, and was active as a singer and choral conductor. His oeuvre includes sacred music and seven polonaises, four of which are performed here. Alexander Rodowski was from Cracow and composed mainly religious music. His Six Polonaises have been preserved in manuscript and date from around 1800.

Józef Kozłowski is the best-known of the composers included here. He was from a family of landowners, and was educated as a violinist and an organist. In the early 1780s he moved to St Petersburg, where he was to remain for the rest of his life. His most famous work was a Requiem, first performed in 1798. His oeuvre includes many polonaises; the pieces performed here were published in St Petersburg in 1801.

The polonaises recorded by Urszula Bartkiewicz are something like the 'missing link' between the baroque polonaises, some of which are quite well-known (Bach) and those by Chopin. All the pieces appear on disc for the first time, and as most of the composers are almost entirely unknown quantities, the importance of his disc can hardly be overstated. That said, the similarity in form suggests that it is not recommendable to listen to this disc at a stretch. The performances are as good as one could wish for. Ms Bartkiewicz certainly does make the best of this repertoire, and her involvement with this project is clearly notable in her performances and her informative liner-notes. The booklet does not specify the instrument she plays, but it seems to be the right one for these polonaises.

Johan van Veen

Bazyli BOHDANOWICZ (c1740-1819)
Polonese Amoroso in F [4:11]
J. HEILIŃSKI (18th/19th C)
Polonoise No. 1 in F [3:56]
Polonoise No. 2 in D [3:37]
Stefano JABŁOŃSKI (1756-1828)
Polonaise de Redoutte No. 1 in D [4:05]
Polonaise de Redoutte No. 2 in E flat [4:03]
Polonaise de Redoutte No. 3 in B flat [3:16]
Polonaise pathétique in f minor [3:53]
Aleksandr RODOWSKI (18th/19th C)
Polonoise No. 1 in D [4:06]
Polonoise No. 2 in G [3:51]
Polonoise No. 3 in B flat [3:21]
Polonoise No. 4 in E flat [3:03]
Polonoise No. 5 in C [3:13]
Polonoise No. 6 in D [3:49]
Józef KOZŁOWSKI (1757-1831)
Polonoise d'un Quintetto de Pleyel in a minor [3:41]
Polonoise d'une Serenade de Pleyel in E flat [5:40]
Polonoise d'une Romance 'Je vais donc quitter pour jamais' in f minor [5:27]
Polonoise in B [3:19]
Polonoise d'un air italien 'Tu me dame dividi' in g minor [5:39]

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