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Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Suite No.1 fantaisie-tableaux for 2 pianos Op.5 (1893) [22:57]
Anton ARENSKY (1861-1906)
Suite No.4 for 2 pianos Op.62 (1903) [16:55]
Suite No.1 for 2 pianos Op.15 (1888) [15:12]
Suite No.2 silhouettes for 2 pianos Op.23 (1892) [17:01]
Książek Piano Duo
rec. June 2020, Concert Hall of the Krzysztof Penderecki European Centre, Lusławice
DUX RECORDS 1720 [72:27]

Keyboard players have performed together since the instrument first existed but whilst there are huge numbers of works for piano 4-hands the repertoire for two pianos hasn't always kept pace. There are wonderful works by Mozart, the Sonata K.448 and the Concerto K.365 but original works have either been lesser works by great composers, works like Chopin's Rondo op.73 or Schumann's Andante and variations op.46, or works by little heard composers; there are idiomatic examples by Carl Reinecke and Joseph Rheinberger for example. The Variations on a theme by Haydn and the Sonata op.34b by Brahms are glorious works but are technically transcriptions. So the two Suites by Rachmaninov have really been an attractive prospect for two piano teams and have been recorded numerous times. Both are exceptionally well written for the instruments and offer beautiful music. The young Polish duo of Agnieszka Zahaczewska-Książek and Krzysztof Książek have chosen the first suite, written when the composer was just 20 years old. Its four movements are unconnected though each is headed by lines by notable poets; Lermontov, Byron, Tyutchev and Khomyakov. The Barcarolle that opens the first suite has been among my favourite Rachmaninov pieces since I first heard it played by John Ogden and Brenda Lucas on an old LP (EMI Classics for pleasure CFPD 41 4438 3). The colour he produces is magnificent and you feel every word of Lermontov's poem, In the distance the old barcarolle was heard, now melancholy, now happy…The gondola glides through the water, and time glides over the surge of love. The expectation of love amid the sounds of the night found in Byron's Parisina is captured in the second movement, its subdued opening growing ever more ardent, the pianists exchanging the forlorn songs of the birds against swathes of arpeggios. The final two movements are each based on insistent repetitive figures. The opening of Tears, Fyodor Tyutchev's poem describing the endless torrent of human sorrows, is a simple four note falling figure. This repeats throughout the movement, harmonically changed and with a great variety of keyboard textures and it is only halted at the final page when a haunting, funereal march suggests the ultimate end to all human suffering. The insistent bells of the final movement for all their minor key harmonies and mad, brazen tolling tell of the joys of Easter time - Silver thunderings sing forth the tidings, exulting in that holy victory… I have heard criticism of this movement that Rachmaninov spoils the effect by having the ostinato ringing through the entire movement and I know people who agree – I have learned not to play this movement when my wife is within earshot – but I think Rachmaninov knew exactly the effect he wanted; when the bells ring their clamour is unremitting and exultant, just what I hear in this tumultuous finale.

To this early work of Rachmaninov the Książek piano duo add three of the five suites for two pianos by Rachmaninov's teacher Anton Arensky. Arensky studied with Rimsky-Korsakov who described his pupil's music as colourless and predicted that he would soon be forgotten. Whilst the latter is partly true and only a select few of his compositions have remained in the repertoire, such as the wonderful D minor Piano trio, it has been enough to keep his name in circulation. One of these compositions is the waltz from the first suite, famously and marvellously recorded by Harold Bauer and Ossip Gabrilowitsch in 1929 (Vai Audio VAIA/IPA1018). Agnieszka Zahaczewska-Książek and Krzysztof Książek frame this first suite with the fourth and the five-movement second suite. It opens with a Romance that comprises two themes, the second very Tschaikowsky-like, and treats them as a short set of variations, weaving an ever more elaborate web of delicate figuration around them. The deservedly popular waltz is light-hearted and sunny and even its more melancholy sections are framed in gossamer writing. A breezy and virtuosic Polonaise completes the set; there are echoes of Chopin and Liszt in its writing, Chopin especially in the lyrical trio. The second set is subtitled Silhouettes and in its conception at least it harks back to the suites of Rameau; its five movements are short portraits. Le Savant, the sage, is noble and stately, its contrasting sections reminiscent of a Bach organ Prelude and fugue. La Coquette is a delicate little waltz, perhaps not as distinctive as his first suite waltz but one that would make a refreshing alternative once in a while. A faster scherzo-like movement, reminiscent of Saint-SaŽns in its vivacity depicts Polichinelle, described by the booklet as the surly clown from Commedia dell'arte but I find nothing surly about this happily gamboling comic. The dreamer, le RÍveur, evidently has heroic quests in his or her subconscious as the central section of this otherwise gentle piece suggests; again Tschaikowsky is a distinct influence for the epic middle section. A swaggering Bolero, brings the suite to a close with the energy and fire of la Danseuse. This whole suite oozes charm and grand imagination that belie Rimsky-Korsakov's negative comments and it would be nice to hear this more often.

There is almost a decade between the second and fourth suites but harmonically there is little difference; the same qualities of imaginative keyboard writing and wonderfully approachable and appealing music are there, from the grandeur of the prelude, via the lilting waltz that is the Romance and the slow unfolding of Le RÍve to the presto final waltz. Le RÍve is the most extended movement here and contrasts a series of semiquavers describing a slowly developing harmonic sequence with more declamatory music and a grand waltz surrounded by arpeggios that took me back to Arensky's Ryabinin Variations in mood. Whilst the sound on this disc is realistic and full I would have liked the melody here to stand out more against these semi-quavers – it seems to be a little lost though whether that is a performance choice or simply the recorded balance is hard to tell; it is a minor quibble. To bring things full circle the opening prelude briefly interrupts the perpetuum mobile of the finale before the pianos take off for a grand finish.

Agnieszka Zahaczewska-Książek and Krzysztof Książek formed their prize-winning duo in Krakůw in 2012. If I find moments where their ensemble isn't absolutely perfect – the opening barcarolle for instance – this is probably nit-picking in what is an impressive dťbut recording with playing of real joy and life. Having heard and enjoyed all four of the Arensky Suites in concert I feel their relative neglect is unfair and I hope this release goes some way to shining a little light their way.

Rob Challinor

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