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Harmonia Polonica Nova
Paweł ŁUKASZEWSKI (b 1968)
Concerto for accordion and string orchestra (2018) [10:05]
Dariusz PRZYBYLSKI (b 1984)
Concerto festivo, for two positive organs and chamber orchestra, Op 45 (2008) [22:20]
Krzysztof HERDZIN (b 1970)
Concerto for harmonica and string orchestra (2019) [29:13]
Klaudiusz Baran (accordion); Roman Perucki, Hanna Dys (positive organs); Kacper Smoliński (harmonica)
Witold Lutosławski Chamber Philharmonic in Łomża/Jan Miłosz Zarzycki
rec 2019/20, Performance Hall of the Cultural Centre of the Catholic Schools in Łomża; Holy Cross Church, Łomża, Poland
DUX 1715 [61:41]

Another day, another Dux compilation of 21st century Polish concertante works for accordion, harmonica and two positive organs. And another succinctly named orchestra with a moniker that trips off the tongue. Jesting apart, this disc surely constitutes a completely unique niche. In her booklet note, Magdelana Pasternak tells us that the first two works are adaptations of pieces that were initially conceived as concertos for single organ and orchestra. Krzysztof Herdzin’s Harmonica Concerto is the odd one out; it is apparently the first work of its kind to have been composed in Poland; Ms Pasternak points out that its completion coincided with the centenary of the invention of the chromatic harmonica (in 1920), although it is not clear if Herdzin’s piece was created specifically with that tumultuous landmark in mind.

I requested this disc for review out of sheer curiosity. Whilst Herdzin is a completely new name to me, I’ve long been an admirer of Paweł Łukaszewski’s luminous choral music – of the three composers featured he is certainly the best-known outside of his homeland. But in the last few years I have also picked up a couple of really rewarding discs of Dariusz Przybylski’s (pronounced Pruzh- bihl- skee) orchestral music – it is consistently colourful and challenging, frequently attractive and rather difficult to pin down beyond those rather vague descriptors – a representative introduction to his art is the terrific Flute Concerto Hommage à Josquin which features on a Dux portrait disc - review. His Concerto festivo is the earliest of the works on this new issue; it began life as a concerto for single organ (albeit for four hands) which was commissioned in 2008 by the Divertimento Youth Chamber Orchestra. The orchestral scoring (limited to strings and single flute) of the original was retained for this new version and reflects the inexperience of the young players involved, although Przybylski’s skilful, propulsive writing adeptly conceals that conceit. No such compromises were extended to the more demanding parts for the soloists Roman Perucki and Hanna Dys, each performing on their own instruments. As befits the commission, this concerto represents the most directly accessible music I have yet encountered by this composer. It’s cast in five movements, with pairs of neo-classically drawn outer panels concealing a brief Fantasie which is an accompanied cadenza in all but name. The opening Ouverture is an eerily addictive scene-setter, employing a tune which combines high church with Hammer Horror, backed by quasi-minimalist pulsings and coloured by vibrant flute flavours. The following Air is built around a mysterious descending tune which Przybylski elaborates with skill and elegance. The composer’s avoidance of cliché in music which seems so deceptively simple is most impressive. The orchestra is limited to chordal commentary in the tiny Fantasie, a cadenza devoid of obvious virtuosity. The flute provides the irresistible theme in a likeably meandering Sarabande; here’s yet more compelling evidence that this chap can write a winning tune and manoeuvre it in some unexpected directions. The Toccata finale is a tour-de-force of 21st century neo-classicism, a choppy little confection which strays into jazz and possibly pop territory. Since one can’t really imagine concert promoters queuing up to programme a concerto for two positive organs and orchestra it is good to have a CD recording. More than good in fact- this is a memorable and unpredictable piece which keeps one guessing even after a few listens. It’s brilliantly played by the soloists whilst the impressive flautist Hanna Turonek is kept on her toes too. It’s splendidly recorded in a helpful acoustic which is resonant but not excessively so. The balance – often a problem with Dux – is ideal.

Paweł Łukaszewski also packs a great deal of incident into the three movements of his ten-minute Accordion Concerto. This began life in 1996 as an organ concerto which the composer subsequently re-worked for piano (in 2006) and most recently for accordion. The strings determine the pulse throughout an opening movement marked Moderato secco which is aptly labelled. It has a stop-start dry motoric quality which contrasts most effectively with the piquant, folky dissonances of the solo instrument. The central Adagio giocoso is gorgeous; limpid and lyrical, its lovely theme derives from the Exultet the composer recalled hearing during an Easter Vigil at Rouen’s Notre-Dame Cathedral. I have to add that it’s difficult to believe this music wasn’t originally conceived for the accordion in the first place, so natural does it sound. The Moderato marcato finale is over and done in just 158 seconds. It’s a mirror of the opening movement, projecting a jerky propulsiveness which is most engaging and seems especially conducive to this instrumental combination. The soloist is Klaudiusz Baran; his energetic contribution to the outer movements contrasts tellingly with the interpretative nous he applies in order to extract every last ounce of expressive allure from the delightful slow movement. The balance between soloist and strings is again beautifully realised.

The disc concludes with Krzysztof Herdzin’s very recent Harmonica Concerto. Whilst the booklet provides extensive biographies of each of the soloists and conductor who feature on this disc it tells us nothing about Herdzin. It turns out that he was born in Bydgoszcz, where his father was the resident tenor at the local opera house. He trained as a pianist and veered into jazz during the mid-1990s. He is a renowned arranger and performer; he has apparently created over 3000 arrangements, been involved in the recording of over 200 CDs and has duly been awarded numerous gold and platinum discs for his multifarious activities. He was recently named professor of jazz piano at the Nowowiejski Academy in his native city. It seems important to mention all of this in order to make sense of this concerto, For a start, at thirty minutes it is by some distance the longest piece here. One might baulk at the prospect of an extended concertante work for harmonica – in its century-long history it has invariably been cast as a ‘light’ instrument, tiny in size, compressed in range, limited in timbre. The list of renowned works for harmonica and orchestra is limited to concertos by Villa-Lobos and Arthur Benjamin and a Romance by Vaughan Williams (at least they’re the three that immediately come into my head). So is Herdzin’s work any good?

Well I really liked it. Herdzin deploys a standard fast-slow-fast three movement structure and makes absolutely no attempt to plumb Beethovenian depths. Whilst the concerto is unremittingly tuneful, it is also rhythmically varied, endlessly imaginative in timbral terms (especially in view of the harmonica’s limitations) and structured with the clarity and ingenuity of a real architect. What impresses me most is the sheer quantity of memorable ideas, many of which could have found themselves as themes to British TV situation comedies between 1970 and 1990, and I mean that as a genuine, heartfelt compliment to a composer who seems to be able to create a ‘hook’ at the drop of a hat. The theme presented by the strings at the outset of the first movement is a typically angular slice of Hindemithian neo-classicism yet from the moment of soloist Kacper Smoliński’s first entry the music perceptibly softens. Herdzin’s jazz credentials suggests that he has ready access to the improvisatory flair required to develop a tune, and so it proves. He already knows where his music is headed, and with material as communicative and memorable as this who cares if he leads the listener around the houses a bit? The journey is scenic, atmospheric, by turn nostalgic and adventurous. Smoliński’s virtuosity is tested by a longish cadenza in the run up to the movement’s final bars; I can by no means claim to be an expert on the particular merits of this or that harmonica player but his playing sounds magnificent, as expressive as it’s athletic. The pizzicato strings and bass groove that opens the central Moderato pomposo yield to a blissfully lyrical idea that sounds peculiarly English – I can well imagine it cropping up during montage sequences of gentle old transport-based movies such as Genevieve (Henry Cornelius, 1953) or Three Men in a Boat (Ken Annakin, 1956). Once more Herdzin weaves a web of variation that is as delicate as it’s enjoyable. The ten-minute Allegro con legerezza finale really flies by, as one terrific tune is piled gleefully on top of another – the orchestral accompaniment is perky and energetic until a more romantic, slightly melancholic second theme appears from nowhere. Herdzin tinkers with these ideas for the rest of the movement by which time one is left floored by the brilliance of the soloist Kacper Smoliński. I’ve played this piece three times now and keep expecting its appeal to wane – it hasn’t done; quite the opposite in fact. I suspect the likes of Toots Thielemans, Tommy Reilly and Larry Adler would have lapped it up.

And so it is that this curious compendium of organ-associated oddments has proved to be an unexpected joy. It’s one of the finest Dux products to have come my way in recent years and boasts excellent sound throughout. As for the Witold Lutosławski Chamber Philharmonic in Łomża under their Principal Conductor Jan Miłosz Zarzycki, don’t be deceived by their cumbersome and rather ‘provincial’ title. They are pitch perfect; their,2 line up (plus the flute in the Przybylski concerto) sounds surprisingly powerful when required and their ensemble across the entire disc seems impeccable. They have also been recorded most sympathetically. I do hope readers who pick up on my enthusiasm for this disc will feel encouraged to delve into its strange delights for themselves.

Richard Hanlon

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