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Zygmunt ZAREMBA (1861-1915)
Trio-Fantaisie for violin, cello and piano op. 51 [34:02]
Romance for cello and piano op. 54 no. 1 [5:37]
Polonaise mélancolique for cello and piano op. 54 no. 2 [5:02]
Nocturne for violin and piano op. 35 [8:24]
Paweł Kukliński (violin)
Błażej Goliński (cello)
Magdalena Ochlik-Jankowska (piano)
rec. June 2021, Concert Hall of Stanisław Moniuszko Academy of Music in Gdańsk, Poland
Première recordings

The Acte Préalable label would seem to have access to a number of dedicated researchers, whose remit is to dig deeper and deeper into the treasure trove of Polish music, not only to guarantee the regular monthly appearance of new releases, but also to ensure that these will usually contain at least one, if not two composers new to the listening public. On this occasion it’s Zygmunt Zaremba, born in 1861, the same year as Anton Arensky. However, neither the CD booklet nor the jewel case includes the year of his death, even though this information is freely available on Google – 1915, the same year as Scriabin.

The CD booklet, compiled by the three performers themselves, does suggest that little is actually known about the composer himself, whereas details of his father, Władysław – also a musician – are actually more forthcoming. Zygmunt was born in Żytomierz, which, under the name of Zhytomyr, is now a city in northwest Ukraine. Formerly in Poland, it became part of the Russian Empire, and then the Soviet Union in 1920, before the Ukraine announced its independence in 1991. Zygmunt was still an infant when his family permanently moved to Kiev but, already living in a musical environment, as a youngster he soon started to move in eminent musical circles, through the good offices of his father, who was also, of course, an important influence on his son’s burgeoning skills as a composer, particularly where Polish nationalism per se was concerned.

Some of the father’s works were transcriptions and arrangements, which were so popular at the time, but require advanced piano-skills because of the many virtuoso elements they embraced. Some are quite extensive in terms of formal design, while others include elements of improvisation. As far as his son’s compositions are concerned, it is certainly possible to recognize some of the father’s traits, particularly in salon music, where any elements of display are involved. Although Zygmunt must have had piano lessons, some of the figurations he uses are, apparently, almost back-breakingly difficult, according to the pianist here. In many passages of this kind, Zygmunt Zaremba simply prioritizes the quality of harmonic interplay between the hands over the pianist’s performing skills, which succeeds in making his writing especially challenging for those with smaller hands.

The CD opens with the four-movement Trio-Fantaisie for violin, cello and piano op. 51, which, as the booklet confirms, is pretty much par for the course for what you’d expect from a Romantic piano trio of the time. The notes appear to omit the key of the Trio, which some of us quite like to know – it is, in fact in D minor. The first movement opens with a Moderato introduction, which seems uncannily like the opening of The Story of the Kalendar Prince, the second movement of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade. This introduction is just a minute-and-a-half long, before announcing the main theme proper – an Allegro moderato, heard first on the cello, over an undulating figure from the piano. Initially, the movement ticks all the boxes of Sonata-Form, and arrives in the dominant key. But, where a development section might normally be expected, the music returns to the spirit of the introduction, before picking up tempo again. However, the movement – the longest on the CD – has another trick up its sleeve, as the opening calm resumes, and the composer gradually steers the music towards the key of E flat major, in order to slip seamlessly into the Andante religioso slow movement. This is effectively the musical heart of the Trio-Fantaisie, and builds into a passionate climax, though always mindful of the ‘religioso’ instruction, which tends to rein things in slightly, in terms of the degree of acceptable romantic outpouring. However, it’s still a lovely movement, written from the heart, and performed with appropriate reverence and empathy.

You may well have picked up on the fact that the slow movement seemed to incorporate some motifs heard in the opening movement. The third movement – Allegro molto immediately confirms that the Trio-Fantaisie is indeed conceived as a ‘cyclic’ work – where themes, or motifs pop up in different movements in various guises, with the intention of creating greater unity in the composition as a whole. In terms of its place in the work, the third movement would seem to be the ‘Scherzo’, although it bears little resemblance to the vast majority, which are usually in triple metre. However, it’s quite a flexible, all-embracing term, so I am sure this was Zaremba’s intention here. Interestingly, some of the writing, especially for the piano, feels quite Brahmsian, and Brahms occasionally favours ‘Scherzos’ in duple time, or those with slightly less-conventional design. Again, as with the end of the first movement, the Scherzo comes to a temporary close, ready to launch into the Finale without further ado – an initially brusque and terse Allegro moderato.

Like the first movement, after a fair deal of passionate and climactic writing, the Finale incorporates a slower section around the halfway mark, intended to build up to a final reprise of the Allegro moderato and the countdown to the work’s close. Thematically-speaking, this is music from the opening movement, but now in the home key. Even at this stage, however, Zaremba clearly feels there’s more to be done, so interpolates another slower section, over a dominant pedal, with frequent references to the chromatic motif that pervades a lot of the writing. But the composer really does keep you guessing right up to the very end – is he going to crank up the tempo again, for a headlong triumphant gallop to the finish, possibly ending in a blaze of glory in the tonic major key? You will have to get hold of the CD, to find out, I’m afraid. In every respect this has the hand of a musical craftsman, in terms of invention and scoring, and the inclusion of Fantaisie in the title is not for the sake of appearances, since there is a genuine feeling of caprice in the effective, though slightly less-conventional construction. However, whether Zaremba’s seemingly inspirational design works equally well across all four movements, I’ll leave that up to the listener to decide.

There are, I’m sure, many Romances for cello and piano already out there, many of which will have ended up in orchestral adaptations. Zaremba’s Romance for cello and piano op. 54 no. 1 would certainly hold its own here, and even if it wasn’t top of the list, I feel there’s sufficient to put it among the better examples of the genre. Like so many, it follows an essentially ternary form, where the opening A section, in the key of D major, is followed by a contrasting middle episode in the relative minor (B minor), before a reprise of the opening. However Zaremba does make some effective design-modifications, which do add significantly to the work’s overall success. These include a particularly passionate outburst in the middle section, where the composer effortlessly glides from B minor up to C major – not a mind-blowing experience, given what was happening around him in the global musical scene – but it’s still a nice effect. Once more he teases the listener as to how the work will actually end, but again I won’t say more at this juncture. Acte Préalable has sensibly enlisted the aid of three well-trusted and respected ambassadors to introduce Zaremba’s works to the wider audience, who have already impacted on the unmitigated success of the Trio-Fantaisie. While each player gave a committed and secure performance, which also evidenced a well-studied empathy with the composer’s style, it would seem fair to single-out the pianist, Magdalena Ochlik-Jankowska, for her superb contribution. As for the Romance, the accolade would surely go to cellist, Błażej Goliński, whose rich tone finely complements the writing, while his subtle dynamic control and accuracy at the top of the register are also important attributes. The cello, in fact, was an instrument always close to the composer’s heart.

It would be hard to envisage a CD of Polish music without a Polonaise, and Zaremba doesn’t disappoint here, either. It’s written for the same pair of instruments as the previous work, and, if attempting to rank it on a similar scale for the genre, I would suggest that it comes a little higher up the ladder than the Romance. The booklet questions whether Zaremba’s chosen title – Polonaise mélancolique really conveys the character of the music we hear, especially at the start. The notes suggest the descriptors, ‘dramatique’ or ‘heroique’ – ‘héroïque’ according to French orthography – might be better suited, but while ‘dramatique’ would seem an alternative, there is hardly anything ‘héroïque’ here, when compared to Chopin’s Polonaise in A-flat major, Op. 53. Again Zaremba goes for the tried-and-trusted ternary form, with the ‘A’ section in the key of A minor, and the middle episode essentially in D major, though with what now seems one of the composer’s favoured devices, a section in a seemingly remote key – A flat major here – achieved, as before, by his skilful use of enharmonic modulations. Also, just as I felt a hint of Rimsky-Korsakov in the opening piece, here there are some passages that remind me of another Russian, Alexander Borodin’ Should you, though, compare the coda of Zaremba’s Polonaise, to that of Chopin’s A flat example, I think it very much confirms why ‘héroïque’ would not be appropriate in this instance.

The CD closes with an opportunity for violinist, Paweł Kukliński, to shine, with Zaremba’s Nocturne op. 55. The key is F sharp minor, and while specifically titled ‘nocturne’, it could also double up quite effectively as a ‘berceuse’. I was pleased to see that the booklet referred to Tchaikovsky in its description of the work, as I, too, also detected more than a hint of Russian sentimentality and pathos in Zaremba’s score. The piece was actually dedicated to Jan Hřímalý, a violin professor at Moscow Conservatory, so perhaps this prompted the Russian connection. However, the short introduction seems to have a slight touch of Wagner’s Tristan to it, before the main theme is announced, with its clear Tchaikovsky-like melody. As often seems to be the case with Zaremba, the first section physically stops, after which the middle episode takes over – here in the key of D major. Virtually all the passion and pent-up emotion is reserved for the middle section, and our two players bring this off well in performance. As befits a ‘nocturne’, or indeed ‘berceuse’, the ending is a suitably hushed affair, which, in any case, seems more Zaremba’s norm, than going out in a blaze of glory, where there was an opportunity to.

I was definitely very much engaged and entertained by Zygmunt Zaremba’s eminently-listenable music, and feel, once again, that the Acte Préalable label should be applauded for having the faith to research and record a composer about whom so little is known. The performers and the recording did Zaremba proud, and while his discovery won’t prove a true revelation, in my book there’s always room out there for another good tune or two.

I’ve just checked to see if there are any extant scores by Zygmunt’s father, Władysław, but have drawn a blank so far, so perhaps that might just be one project too far, for the Acte Préalable label.
Philip R Buttall

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