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Jan Ignacy PADEREWSKI (1860-1941)
Suite in G major (1884) [10:47]
Four Songs, Op 7 (1882-85) [9:49]
Six Songs, Op 18 (1887-93) [14:50]
Nocturne in B-flat major, Op 16 No 4 (1890-92) [4:13]
Douze Mélodies, Op 22 (1903) [30:49]
Alina Adamski (soprano)
Agata Schmidt (mezzo-soprano)
Capella Bydgostiensis/Mariusz Smolij
rec. August 2020, Pomeranian Philharmonic Hall Bydgoszcz, Poland
Premiere Recordings
NAXOS 8.579085 [71:19]

It would probably be fair to assume that most music-lovers, pianists in particular, have encountered Paderewski’s Minuet in G (1887), at some stage in their life. Despite its modest length, this first of six pieces comprising his Humoresques de concert, Op 14 became world-famous, overshadowing his major works like the Piano Concerto in A and the Symphony in B minor, Polonia. Recently I reviewed another all-Polish CD in Hyperion’s Romantic Piano Concerto Series, featuring a piano concerto by Jerzy Gablenz, and Paderewski’s Fantaisie polonaise sur des thèmes originaux, Op 19. At the time I did dedicate a fair amount of space to the composer’s life, so here I intend to cut straight to the music.

The CD begins with the Suite in G major for strings (1884) which, we are informed, was first included in the list of the composer’s known works, towards the end of the last century in 1986, when the autograph score was brought to light in the library collection at the Chopin University of Music in Warsaw. It had already been known that Paderewski had previously been working on a suite for strings, while studying in Berlin, but it then seemed to go off the radar.

The opening Allegro molto, initially reminds one of similar works by Grieg, even Dvořák, with its opening cheerful and pastoral feel. It features a robust, sunny melody that later seamlessly assumes the guise of a more straightforward march. The slow movement is a delightful Andante which starts high in the register, before dropping to the lower strings. Again it could easily be by the composer’s Norwegian counterpart, Grieg, particularly with his neo-modal harmony, and characteristic chordal juxtapositions. The ensuing Scherzo, perhaps, as the booklet suggests, the fleet-of-foot of the young Mendelssohn – even if with a somewhat beefed-up orchestration. The closing bars of the Scherzo could certainly be echt-Mendelssohn, while even the slower and more sugary nature of the Trio also leans somewhat in the direction of the German master.

It’s worth commenting that the Suite was never performed during Paderewski’s lifetime, its actual premiere taking place in 1998 in Kraków. The fourth movement itself was never completed – or it was lost in transit – so the present conductor, Mariusz Smolij, decided to reverse the playing-order of the original second (Scherzo) and third (Andante) movements to create a better-balanced three-movement work, and something that certainly pays off in performance. It would also provide a welcome short concert addition to the genre.

The 1880s represent a period of extreme creativity for the composer, when not only did he write his highly-successful Piano Concerto, but he also composed his Four Songs, Op. 7, set to poetry by Adam Asnyk (1838-1897). In fact, despite the ubiquitous Minuet in G, and the Piano Concerto, songs still form quite a significant part of Paderewski’s output overall.

The Four Songs, Op 7 have been orchestrated here by Polish composer Marcin Gumiela (born 1980), and on first hearing, did remind me somewhat of Vítězslav Novak’s 13 Slavic Songs, or even, perhaps, some of Chopin’s Of course neither Novak’s, nor Chopin’s Songs get the contemporary lush-string backing of Paderewski, but there still seems a sense of shared empathy, given their ethnic origins, which might partly be down to the phonology of their respective Slavic tongues which, to be fair, don’t quite have the dolce suono of Italian. Op 4 opens with When the last rose wilted, which sets the scene for what is to follow. While each short song has a character of its own, there seems an over-arching sense of sadness – partly down to the prominence of the minor key – nostalgia, and allusions to folk idioms, present in the often-modal harmonic colouring succeeding in enhancing this even further. Furthermore, the booklet identifies a perceived feeling of national pride created by indirect references to Polish folk music, notably in the closing song of the set, My boy was taken away.

The Six Songs, Op 18, set to poems by Adam Mickiewicz (1798–1855), and again in a string adaptation by Gumiela, appeared five years later, and were especially well-received in London, where such comments as ‘very beautiful’, ‘very Polish, and lovely and full of tenderness’, and ‘small gifts, framed in noble frames, with a clear melody that touches the soul’, were being bandied about by all the leading music critics in the capital at the time. The text for the final song – If I had changed – while originally attributed to Mickiewicz, was, in fact, written by Franciszek Morawski [1783–1861).

The intervening Nocturne in B-flat major, Op 16 No 4 (1890–92) was a popular piano miniature in its day, which earned the composer the sum of 5,000 marks for the performing rights. In its original, it’s a lovely piece, which the composer frequently included in his recitals, and is so effectively written for the piano, by a pianist-composer who knows instinctively how to get the very best out of his instrument. Unlike some of the more famous examples by Chopin, Paderewski’s example has an overall lighter feel to it, and is more genial in character. We hear it here in another contemporary string arrangement by Smolij, which I feel is a tad disappointing. For reasons of contrast, it would have been nice to incorporate the Nocturne in its original solo-piano version, or, failing that, with a specially-composed string backing, as Chopin sometimes was prone to do. I just find an all-string version less involving.

The Six Songs, Op 18 – proved to be the most mature of the composer’s vocal and instrumental achievements to date. But these were to be followed a decade later by a new collection of Douze Mélodies, Op 22, on this occasion to verse by French poet Catulle Mendès. Given that Paderewski’s creative activity virtually ended in 1903, despite being only 43 at the time, the Douze Mélodies, Op 22 (1903) turned out to be the most surprising and original items of his musical output. To date, the composer had written in a traditional harmonic language, eminently listenable, and popularist, but it is not impossible to perceive a stylistic change in Op 22. It may well be that Paderewski was especially inspired by the text and manner of writing-style of Catulle Mendès (1841-1909), of Portuguese-Jewish extraction, born in Bordeaux., who was most noted for his association with the Parnassians, a group of French poets who advocated a controlled formal art for art’s sake in reaction to the ‘formlessness’ of Romanticism – and Paderewski was perhaps seeking to match this from the musical standpoint? For whatever reason, the Douze Mélodies appear, somehow, to have moved forward into the world of some harmonic haziness, and a greater element of tonal uncertainty – in short, a new era of albeit mild dissonance and gentle chromaticism. Gumiela is once more responsible for the string accompaniments.

If only Paderewski could have gone on from here to evolve an-even-more-mature and personal vocal style. Yes, the first two sets – Opp 7 and 18 respectively – are most enjoyable and extremely easy on the ear. But as the booklet confirms, Paderewski’s Douze Mélodies will still stand as one of most original sets of songs from the start of the twentieth-century in Polish musical literature.

I have to admit that, the first time I read the comment about the overall content of Op 22, I thought I might find the last set of song less palatable than the other two – ‘dissonance’ and ‘tonal uncertainty’ can, after all, be quite emotive terms, when used with no real point of reference.

But in reality, not only did I enjoy the whole CD immensely, but found the Douze Mélodies to be the real highlight of the whole disc, and feel that they should take their rightful place up there with the best examples of the genre, if only to help persuade music-lovers everywhere that Jan Ignacy Paderewski has far more to offer than a little neo-classical Minuet, and a highly-impressive Piano Concerto, that was certainly ahead of its time.

Of course, there are so many other reasons why this new CD has such a broad appeal, apart from the novelty of its repertoire. Soprano Alina Adamski, in Op 7 and Op 18, and Agata Schmidt (mezzo-soprano) in Op 22, both Polish prize-winners respectively, have both such fine voices with immense power, yet a well-honed dynamic range, all allied to such great empathy for the music. Factor in the equally outstanding playing from the 12 members of Capella Bydgostiensis, with Mariusz Smolij at the helm, and you have a musical match made in heaven, and just for a relative song too, on the Naxos label. For those who are interested in seeing the full texts, these can easily be located at the Naxos website, by searching for this new CD.

Philip R Buttall

Previous review: Jim Westhead

Contents
Four Songs, Op 7
Gdy ostatnia róża zwiędła (When the last rose wilted)
Siwy koniu (Grey horse)
Szumi w gaju brzezina (Birch wood rustling in a grove)
Chłopca mego mi zabrali (My boy was taken away)

Six Songs, Op 18
Polały się łzy me (My tears have shed)
Piosnka dudarza (The Song of Bagpipe Boy)
Moja pieszczotka (My cosset)
Nad wodą wielką (Over a great water)
Tylem wytrwał (I endured so much)
Gdybym się zmienił (If I had changed)
Douze Mélodies, Op 22
Dans la forêt (Into the forest)
Ton coeur est d'or pur (Your heart is pure gold)
Le Ciel est très bas (The sky is very low)
Naguère (In days gone by)
Un jeune pâtre (A young shepherd)
Elle marche d'un pas distrait (She walks distractedly)
La Nonne (The Nun)
Viduité (Emptiness)
Lune froide (Cold moon)
Querelleuse (Quarrelsome woman)
L'Amour fatal (Fatal Love)
L'Ennemie (The Enemy)



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