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Jerzy GABLENZ (1888-1937)
Piano Concerto in D-flat major, Op 25 [44:38]
Ignacy Jan PADEREWSKI (1860-1941)
Fantaisie polonaise sur des thčmes originaux, Op 19 [21:47]
Jonathan Plowright (piano)
BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/Łukasz Borowicz
rec. September 2019 City Hall Candleriggs Glasgow, Scotland
The Romantic Piano Concerto – Vol. 83
HYPERION CDA68323 [66:27]

A quick Google search for ‘Romantic Piano Concerto’ should confirm at least one thing – although Hyperion has now used up two more new works with its latest release in the Romantic Piano Concerto series, it could still be years before the well eventually runs dry. It’s probably one of the most popular, and fecund genres out there, judging by the thousands of posts sharing details of obscure Romantic piano concertos, just waiting to be discovered by Hyperion, or other enterprising labels like Toccata Classics.

Quite by chance, the new Hyperion release, Volume 83 in the series to be precise, harks back to the first one ever, recorded in 1991, not only by presenting works by two Polish composers, but also by using the same orchestra on both occasions. Furthermore one composer is common to both CDs – Ignacy Jan Paderewski. Hyperion’s extremely sensible plan of having dedicated teams of soloists, orchestras, and conductors, for particular subgroups of works, means that there is always real continuity and seamless empathy, whenever they tackle another similar-niche work. On the present CD, British pianist Jonathan Plowright joins the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under Warsaw-born conductor, Łukasz Borowicz, whereas Volume One featured Australian pianist Piers Lane and conductor Jerzy Maksymiuk.

Unless you have a comprehensive knowledge of Polish music, it’s unlikely that you will have come across Jerzy Gablenz before, or his Piano Concerto in D-flat major, Op 25, which opens Volume 83 in the series. Gablenz was born to a musical family in 1888 in Kraków, formerly the Polish capital. At an early age, he began studying piano, then the flute, on which he became a talented exponent, before going on to learn organ, and eventually the 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 subject, 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. At this juncture, suffice it to say that the excellent CD booklet, by musician, actor, and broadcaster Jeremy Nicholas, does a great job in fleshing out the rest of Gablenz’s life, until 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. Eight of the twelve passengers survived, but sadly Gablenz was one of the four who perished. The booklet also provides some useful information about some of his large-scale vocal and orchestral works, as well as his opera Bewitched Circle (1920).

The Piano Concerto in D-flat major, Op 25, is dated September 20, 1926, but had to wait until 1977 for its world premiere with Polish pianist Józef Stompel, at a concert in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. Pianist Jonathan Plowright comments that, while he feels the work is ‘highly effective with great melodies and some humour’, he acknowledges that Gablenz was first and foremost a ‘flautist, and not a natural pianist’, and a composer who seemed to think that all pianists were blessed with hands the size of Rachmaninov. Plowright modestly takes only a paragraph to flag up some of the truly-challenging problems for the performer, and it’s a real tribute to his outstanding pianism and exceptional technique, that the average listener scarcely even notices them in performance.

The Allegro con brio initially features a short two-chord introductory dialogue between piano and full orchestra. There is no lengthy orchestral exposition, or ‘call to arms’ that we get in Rachmaninov’s First Piano Concerto. After some further interaction, a longer orchestral section leads to a passage of repose and calm, which tends to give the impression that it is meandering freely, not in a particular hurry, and with no rigid itinerary as such. Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto, for example, is some four minutes shorter overall, but whereas its opening Allegro ma non tanto takes just under sixteen minutes, Gablenz’s is some seven minutes longer, hence somewhat more time to roam freely.

The piano-writing becomes increasingly complex until another expansively-lyrical passage ensues, where the composer’s idiomatic sense of appropriate scoring fits the expressive nature of his writing like a glove. Eventually there is an impressive and extended cadenza where Plowright really comes into his own, after which a calmer section ą la Rachmaninov follows, eventually leading to a kind of recapitulation, where soloist and orchestra revisit most of the ideas heard earlier. Since the ideas are all distinctive in their different ways and characters, Gablenz does hold the listener’s attention throughout, in formally what the booklet very aptly describes as ‘rhapsodic’. However, when the end does come, it is subtly understated, rather than merely glitzy.

Ask any Romantic Piano Concerto aficionado whether they can name any work in the genre where the triangle has quite a prominent role. Most would no doubt come up either with Liszt’s First Concerto, or the well-known Scherzo from Litolff’s Concerto symphonique No 4. But then ask for a concerto which features the glockenspiel instead, and you’ll most likely draw a blank – that is, unless they’ve already heard the Andante cantabile slow movement from Gablenz’s piano concerto, where the instrument introduces the F minor Andante cantabile with five delicately-repeated notes. This lovely interplay continues for some bars, with some especially-effective writing for the woodwind, later augmented by strings, which leads to the soloist’s entry, a most charming and lyrical idea, simply announced by unaccompanied piano. A solo flute joins the piano – this was Gablenz’s own instrument, of course – and continues to play an important part as the music moves towards its first grand climax. The glockenspiel is heard once more, as lower strings take over the earlier piano melody, leaving the soloist to decorate this with rising and falling chords in both hands. But less than a minute from the end, the music takes on a darker and more ominous hue, particularly in terms of harmonic colouring, as it prepares to move straight into the Allegro maestoso finale, which opens with full chorale-like chords from the brass.

For some minutes, while both orchestra and soloist are actively involved in the action, it does feel somewhat as if Gablenz has temporarily lost direction, especially around six or so minutes into the movement, despite having tossed a couple of ‘good tunes’ into the mix. Plowright comments that the composer quotes almost directly from the opening of Chopin’s G minor Ballade, which Gablenz then uses as thematic material, in what appears to be something of a time-buying exercise, before he can start to build up to the next climax, which now relies somewhat on a theme from the concerto’s opening movement. Gablenz then uses the massed sound of brass, almost with organ-like effect, as he recalls the finale’s opening chorale, now in a blaze of glory, though rather surprisingly, not involving the soloist in the closing bars at all – in my opinion, definitely a miscalculation, and especially when compared with the ending of the second work to be heard on the CD. I can’t help thinking that, had Gablenz not met with such an unfortunate and untimely end, he might have revisited the last movement later in his career, and addressed one or two issues that might otherwise have provided for an even more successful work overall, particularly as far as the last movement is concerned.

Even if Ignacy Jan Paderewski hadn’t written one note of music, he would probably still be far better known than composer Jerzy Gablenz. Paderewski became a familiar name as a spokesman for Polish independence, and, in 1919, was the new nation’s Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, during which time he signed the Treaty of Versailles, which ended WW1. The CD booklet is again very informative about Paderewski’s life and music, so I have tried to include only those biographical details that have a particular relevance, when comparing and contrasting the two composers featured on the CD.
Born in rural Poland, Paderewski showed an interest in music at an early age and started to compose and study piano locally. His father sent him to the conservatory in Warsaw, where his progress on the piano was not felt to be overly rapid, and his teacher even advised him to study another instrument, which he did, although the piano still remained his first instrument.

After graduation, he taught for a few years, before continuing his studies in Berlin. Once again he was advised that his talent was insufficient to have a worthwhile career, but undeterred, he went to Vienna to study with fellow-Pole Theodor Leschetizky (1830-1915), considered the most famous teacher of the time. Even here, though, Paderewski found little encouragement because it seemed that it was already too late for the twenty-four-year-old pianist to develop a truly dependable technique. But Paderewski still persisted in his goal, and practised prodigiously, until his highly-successful 1889 debut in Paris launched a career that made him the best-paid pianist of all time, for the next fifty years.

Following another successful debut, this time in London in 1890, Paderewski made his first American tour in 1891, and returned there on a regular basis until the outbreak of WW1. He developed a tremendous following and amassed a fortune estimated at $10 million. Part of his success was due in part to his personal magnetism, and all-round good looks, which apparently caused his audiences to feel that they were invited guests to some exclusive musical soirée, rather than an audience at just another piano recital, which, together with his deliberately grand style of living, made him a glamorous figure of almost royal proportions, especially his entourage who all accompanied him in his private railway carriage.

Early in his career Paderewski wrote a little Minuet in G, Op 14 No 1, in pseudo-Mozart style, which became unbelievably popular. People who did not usually go to concerts went to hear him play it, where spontaneous sighs of recognition would immediately sweep through the audience, from the very first note or so. As a staunch Polish Nationalist, WW1 saw his ever-increasing involvement in politics, and, becoming more and more concerned with the plight of Polish war victims, Paderewski was able to raise large sums of money for them through benefit concerts. Consequently, on his return to Poland as soon as the war was over, he was greeted as a national hero, and was elected Prime Minister. However, Paderewski resigned from political activities in 1921 to resume his career as a concert pianist, continuing to play until 1939, before his death in New York, two years later.

Paderewski wrote his Fantaisie polonaise sur des thčmes originaux, Op 19, on returning from his second tour of America, in 1893. By May of the following year, Irish critic and playwright, George Bernard Shaw, had heard the Fantaisie three times already, and felt that Paderewski was capable of playing ‘much better music than he composed’. In complete contrast, however, leading American critic and musicologist Henry E Krehbiel wrote that the Fantaisie contained ‘proclamations of great pomp and pride, ebullitions of the most unconstrained merriment, tender plaints, dreamy musings and wild outpourings of passion’. For any prospective purchaser, my own advice would probably be, taking a lead from an early Punch magazine of 1846: ‘You pays your money and you takes your choice!’

The Fantaisie is cast in four separate movements, although they are all played without interruption. The opening Andante moderato initially has something of Liszt’s Hungarian Fantasia (1852) about it, and leads into a Vivace ma non troppo – a short and cheerful Polish dance in triple time, with a characteristic emphasis on the second beat of the bar. This is followed by an elegiac slow movement, marked Andante sostenuto, which contains some very effective writing which harks back to a little motif from the first movement, as well as giving a sneak preview of the main theme of the finale, heard on the clarinet. Appropriately labelled Allegro giocoso – lively and cheerful – the closing movement is in rondo-form, in the shape of a fast and furious Krakowiak. Paderewski’s piano-writing is, of course, highly idiomatic, but he also shows that he’s a skilled orchestrator, too, especially where the music begins to rush headlong to a close. Paderewski adds a suitably virtuosic cadenza, but from there on it’s merely a question of flooring the accelerator and racing to the work’s highly-exhilarating close. As Nicholas so rightly concludes, ‘Paderewski the showman knew how to get the audience on its feet’.

Meanwhile, I have felt no need to comment on anything else with regards this attractive new release. Hyperion CDs, and their Romantic Piano Concerto series in particular, have been internationally praised for their fine performances, stylistically-satisfying and wholly individual interpretations, and last, but by no means least, recordings of the highest calibre, that faithfully capture every nuance of the composer’s score.

If you’ve never heard Gablenz’s impressive piano concerto, or indeed, any of his works before, then this CD is well worth considering for this alone.

And given that Volume 1 in the Romantic Piano Concerto series has already featured Paderewski’s far-better-known work for piano and orchestra – the Piano Concerto in A minor, Op 17 – the present coupling, with his less-frequently-encountered Fantaisie Polonaise, would seem to make Volume 83 an even more attractive proposition.

Philip R Buttall

Previous review: Jim Westhead

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