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Jerzy GABLENZ (1888-1937)
Sonata for Cello and Piano in D major, Op 15 [39:02]
Intermezzo à la mazurka in A minor for Piano, Op 2 [3:54]
Canzona in G minor for Flute and Piano, Op 1 No 2 [3:21]
4 Improvisations for Piano, Op 1 No 3 [8:36]
Arabesque in E major for Oboe and Piano, Op 28 No 6 [4:52]
5 Waltzes for Piano Duet, Op 28 [8:08]
Błażej Goliński (cello)
Anna Mikolon (piano)
Katarzyna Czerwińska-Gosz (flute)
Marta Różańska (oboe)
Anna Liszewska (piano, duet)
rec. 2017, Studio Radia Gdańsk, Poland
First Recordings

If you’d asked me what I knew about composer Jerzy Gablenz a couple of months back, I’d probably say he was from Poland, since ‘Jerzy’ is the Polish equivalent of ‘George’, and Gablenz, while a German municipality, is part of the recognised Sorbian district of Saxony, where the vernacular is actually a West Slavic tongue in the same family as Polish.

But if you’d asked me the same question a couple of weeks back, I would then be able to talk about Gablenz’s Piano Concerto in D flat major, which I had the great pleasure of reviewing, when it appeared as Volume 83 in Hyperion’s epic Romantic Piano Concerto series. Having really enjoyed my first experience of Gablenz’s music, I was delighted to find that one of Poland’s leading record labels, Acte Préalable, had already released four CDs of the composer’s songs, and the present one, which features some of his piano, and chamber music.

Gablenz was born to a musical family in 1888 in Kraków, formerly the Polish capital. The CD booklet is, in fact, particularly informative where biographical details are concerned and reasonably helpful when it comes to the music itself – even if, at times, it is not overly difficult to deduce that English is probably not the author’s first language. At an early age, the composer began studying piano, then the flute, on which he became a talented exponent, before going on to learn organ, and eventually cello. Gablenz fully intended continuing his musical studies in Berlin, Vienna, or Paris, but his mother would not hear of him leaving home at such an early age, so it was decided that he would enrol at Kraków University, to study law, which, as Schumann found before him, could be a dry and somewhat unimaginative discipline, But, not to be thwarted, Gablenz still managed to practise, compose, and engage in musicological research, alongside his legal studies.

Around 1907 he met Małgorzata Schoenówna, his future wife, who obtained a piano-teaching diploma a few years later. This period in Gablenz’s output produced numerous short piano solos, songs, a three-movement suite for string orchestra, and saw attempts to experiment with more varied instrumental combinations. The composer’s father had also acquired a small industrial enterprise in the shape of a vinegar and mustard factory, his aim being twofold: to provide a steady source of income for his only son, as well as give him an important insight into how to run a successful business. The CD booklet actually starts retrospectively, by giving a very detailed account of the incidents that led to his untimely death in 1937, when the aircraft he was flying in from Kraków to Warsaw, encountered thick, low-lying cloud, and crashed into an electric pylon, killing four of the twelve passengers, which sadly included Gablenz.

The Cello Sonata, Op 15 was finished on February 3 1924, and, according to the composer’s son, Tomasz, was written for his father’s friend – actor, and radio journalist, Włodzimierz Stępiński. It is a substantial work of almost forty minutes in length, cast in three separate movements. The Allegro deciso opens with an expansively-lyrical theme on the cello, accompanied by lightly-arpeggiated chords on the piano, all of which continues for two minutes or so, before the pianist gets their own opportunity to luxuriate in the Romantic main theme, which it now shares on more equal terms with the cello, while helping to build on the latent passion of the start. A faster, scherzando section then follows, before reverting to the previous calmer scoring of the opening. As the exposition closes, another scherzando section ensues, which helps to maintain momentum, as well as providing necessary thematic contrast. The piano also has opportunities to shine, while the cellist has a brief opportunity to draw breath, in readiness for the recapitulation. This proceeds very much like the opening exposition, leading to a coda, which begins calmly enough, and where Gablenz clearly seems to be teasing his listeners to predict whether the final dénouement will end in a blaze of glory – or just come to a gentle halt. I’m afraid you’ll just have to see for yourself.

The Moderato scherzando functions as a kind of Scherzo, but not the more usual fast, one-in-a-bar movement in triple time, but slower, and in duple measure. The alternating triads with which the piano begins, and over which the cello adds a catchy little tune, initially announced pizzicato, are reminiscent of one of Prokofiev’s Visions fugitives for piano, Op 22 No 10, marked Ridicolosamente. But Gablenz always appears able to conjure up yet another big tune, with which he can change the character of a movement in a trice. Eventually, the initial piano triads signal the start of the recapitulation, which becomes very much a carbon copy of the opening. Gablenz now lets the thematic material break up and fragment, which produces a somewhat stuttering, tenuous ending – a hushed pizzicato triple-stopping on the cello.

Gablenz labels his last movement Andante – vivace con bravura, which would seem to suggest a slow introduction leading into a much faster closing section. Indeed, it opens with a slow, plaintive melody from the cello, somewhat reminiscent of a church chant, with the piano entering soon after. As the movement gets underway, it’s noticeable that the composer is more adventurous in his choice of chords, while also making a more purposeful use of chromatic harmony than before. From the listener’s perspective, the movement comes over as a single entity with significant changes in character and tempo, as its seventeen minutes or so unfold. But, whatever his intended structural design, everything comes together seamlessly. There are a number of effective climaxes along the way, after which the composer regroups, to prepare for the next one. Once again, this has the desired effect of teasing the listener as to how it will all resolve in the end – something again that I’ This keeps the l has the desired effect of holding the listener’s attention, who once more is tasked to second-guess how it will all resolve in the end. Gablenz’s Cello Sonata might not be up there with the likes of Chopin or Rachmaninov, but it is still a most enjoyable work, with many ‘good’ tunes, and certainly deserves at least an occasional airing on the concert platform.

Following this substantial work of almost forty minutes, the rest of the CD essentially comprises miniatures, either single, or formed into small sets. The Intermezzo à la mazurka in A minor, Op 2 is an early work for piano, and could quite easily be mistaken for something similar by Chopin, or one of his contemporaries. It is an attractive little confection, where Gablenz appears to want to develop the type of chromaticism seen in his compatriot’s writing, while not venturing too far, harmonically-speaking – an attractive little encore, perhaps with just a little judicious pruning.

The Canzona in G minor for Flute and Piano, Op 1 No 2 is an even-earlier work, but benefits greatly from the fact that Gablenz was an accomplished flautist, so knew how to get the very best out of the instrument, and which he certainly does in this charming miniature. Almost two-thirds of the way through, just when the listener is expecting the material to return, the composer embarks on a more agitated section, which replaces the opening calm, and then assumes responsibility for providing the work’s understated, yet totally effective close. Gablenz’s use of the harmonic minor scale on occasions imbues the piece with a slightly modal, exotic flavour.

The Four Improvisations for Piano Op 1 No 3 are dated July 1910. The first in the set is marked Andante molto, and is calm overall, but with a passionate outpouring towards the middle, where it includes a chord progression which would be no stranger in Chopin’s harmonic palette. Piece Two is an Allegro alla breve (shown in the insert as ‘ala’), and almost suggests a short ‘lyrical’, or ‘character’ piece by Grieg, perhaps with a title like ‘The Elfin’s Dance‘. While it’s the shortest piece of the set, harmonically it’s one of the more inventive. In its preface to these four short pieces, the booklet mentions Gablenz’s teacher, Feliks Nowowiejski, a composer and organist from Poznań. The third piece, an Andante sostenuto, would seem to show Gablenz’s greatest debt to Nowowiejski, in that the contrapuntal nature of the writing, and particular use of bass-octaves in the left hand, rather like organ pedals, does evoke the character of an organ voluntary. The final piece in the set – an Andantino romantico – reverts to the composer’s more-favoured style of the time, where an expressive, Puccini-like melody in the right hand is supported by a barcarolle-style accompaniment in the left – definitely ‘romantico’, but nevertheless effective, for all of its two minutes or so. And for those, like me, who needed to satisfy their curiosity, Gablenz’s melody is very similar to Vinto si tuffa, which Pinkerton delivers in Act One of ‘Madama Butterfly’. Again, these four short pieces would make an attractive addition to any recital, even if none of them really conveys any true sense of improvisation, as their overall title would seem to suggest.

The Arabesque for Oboe and Piano, Op 28 No 6 was composed in April 1937, a few months before the composer’s untimely death. While just five minutes in length, this particular miniature very much sums up the harmonic direction in which Gablenz has been going since his earlies pieces. The use of chromatic harmony here is far more pervasive than the short, experimental passages he has introduced earlier, and while the key is clearly shown as E major, the overall sense of tonality and key-centre is far less well-defined, imbuing the writing with a wistful, almost ethereal feel, and totally apposite for this gently-lilting Siciliano. Unfortunately we will never know how Gablenz’s emerging personal style would evolve in years to come.

This just leaves his Five Waltzes for Piano Duet, Op 28, to complete what has so far been an immensely enjoyable and eye-opening experience. Again these are early pieces, in fact the work of a mere thirteen-year-old lad in 1901. Although each is cast as a one-in-a-bar Viennese-style Waltz, the precocious young composer manages to achieve real variety in five little pieces that once more are so eminently entertaining, and would be especially suited, in an arrangement for light orchestra, at any afternoon Tea Dance, or Musical Soirée. With their combined keys of A: D: B minor: E: A, they fit snugly together like five small pieces of Lego, especially if played segue – one after another.

For those of you who, like me, were curious as to the origin of this outstanding Polish Record Label and Publishing House, L‘Acte Préalable refers to an unfinished mystical composition by Scriabin, planned for his apocalyptic work, Mysterium – a synesthetic work exploiting the senses of smell and touch, as well as hearing. The label was founded in 1996 by Jan Jarnicki, with a principal aim of promoting Polish classical music and composers. With over 400 CDs in the catalogue, including over 100 Polish composers, of which over 50 were recorded for the first time, accounting for more than 500 Polish works, it has certainly exceeded its original remit, with many exciting new works in the pipeline, still waiting to be recorded and released.
But in order to introduce new repertoire and hitherto unfamiliar composers successfully, performances, recordings, documentation and presentation have to be of the very highest order. Acte Préalable has certainly achieved this, with room to spare, on this world-premiere recording of Piano and Chamber Music by Jerzy Gablenz. Pianist, Anna Mikolon, deserves special praise for her outstanding playing, both as soloist, and accompanist, and her total empathy with Gablenz’s burgeoning musical style. Błażej Goliński’s thrilling partnership in the Cello Sonata proved equally vital to the work’s unmitigated success in performance, while the supporting artists – flautist Katarzyna Czerwińska-Gosz, oboist Marta Różańska, and piano-duettist Anna Liszewska – all made telling individual contributions, too.

All this makes this CD of music by an almost-certainly unknown Polish composer, so very attractive and thoroughly engaging. Furthermore, if it encourages you to want to hear more by Gablenz and his compatriots, then the Acte Préalable catalogue at MusicWeb International is just a click away.

Philip R Buttall

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