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Paula SZALIT (1886-1942)
Works for Piano and Song
Morceaux pour piano, Op 2 [26:22]
Clavierstücke, Op 3 [12:09]
Im Winter (words: Robert Reinick) [3:54]
Elżbieta Tyszecka (piano), Katarzyna Dondalska (soprano), Michał Landowski (piano accompanist)
rec. February and June 2021, Sala Kameralna Filharmonii Łódzkiej im. Artura Rubinsteina & Akademia Sztuki w Szczecinie, Poland
Premiere Recordings

This new release on the Warsaw-based Acte Préalable label once more introduces a composer who is probably unknown even in her own homeland, let alone further afield. The force behind the record label and publishing house is Jan Jarnicki, who is passionate about increasing awareness of so many excellent works by hitherto unknown composers, not only Polish, but French, too, and I, for one, am greatly indebted to him for introducing such a seemingly never-ending wealth of undiscovered talent, even during these challenging times.

In terms of Works for Piano and Song, featuring the music of Paula Szalit, you’ll no doubt notice its relatively short running-time. Jarnicki, in fact, clarifies this in his short, though nonetheless informative preface in the accompanying booklet. He explains that he and pianist Elżbieta Tyszecka, who has recorded over twenty CDs for his label, had been mooting, some while back, what their next joint project might be.

The old chestnut of ‘women composers’ initially raised its head in discussion, which then focused on the now-entirely-forgotten works of Paula Szalit. Unfortunately, the two sets of pieces recorded here are all that have survived in terms of piano works, but Jarnicki was hoping to include another work or two by Szalit, if he could locate the scores. The Covid pandemic didn’t make searching any easier, and, by the time the piano pieces had been recorded in February 2021, anything approaching a reasonable running-time seemed unlikely.

Then, by chance, a single, short song by the composer became available, and with some well-deserved luck, Jarnicki was able to ask two other Acte Préalable artists to tack this on to an already-scheduled recording session in June, and the rest – as they say – is history.

At this point in the booklet, the pianist takes over, firstly to introduce the composer, and then to comment briefly on the works to be heard. Paula Szalit started her career as a pianist at the age of ten, playing at a concert in Vienna, where her teacher was Scottish-born, but German-naturalized pianist and composer, Eugène d’Albert. She followed this with concerts around Europe, including England and Scandinavia. As a pianist, critics often highlighted her eminent technical prowess, the beauty of her sound, a masterful use of the pedals, and, probably above all, her great sensitivity.

But her life as a concert-pianist seemed to end abruptly, all the more surprising, given her burgeoning career at the time. Tyszecka explains that, even to this day, the cause of the pianist’s silence isn’t really known. It might possibly have been due to professional burnout, illness, personal or financial difficulties. However, following some recent research, it is now known that Szalit did spend time in a psychiatric facility near Lvov, and that she was eventually murdered by the Germans in 1942. Her grave can be found at the Jewish cemetery in Lvov itself.

The two sets of piano works on the CD were first published in Berlin, in 1902 when the composer was sixteen or so, and are all in the romantic-miniature genre. Morceaux pour piano, Op 2, consists of eight short pieces, none of which takes more than five minutes to play. The set opens with Rêverie (Andantino), which is dedicated to her teacher, d’Albert. From the outset, it is very reminiscent of Grieg’s well-known Notturno from his Lyric Pieces, Op 54, and quite effective, even though the Norwegian’s example is far more expansive all round.

The second piece – Impromptu (Appassionato) – presents a suitably fervent theme at the outset, which, after a slightly-calmer middle section, returns to round things off. The pianist would clearly have researched both the composer’s writing-style at the time, as well as Szalit’s keyboard playing and, while these are still works from a no doubt precocious teenager, I did feel that Impromptu might have merited a greater sense of passion in Tyszecka’s interpretation, especially given the ‘Appassionato’ tempo marking.

Similarly, while the pianist in her notes above had commented on Szalit’s ‘masterful use of the pedals’, I didn’t detect too much evidence of this from the CD itself. At times the playing sounded clinical and somewhat dry. Unless this was specifically indicated in the score, then I would have preferred to side with Franz Liszt, who said, ‘It is assumed that the pedal will be used with understanding’. Clearly I would be aiming for a richer, and more romantic sound-world than Miss Tyszecka, were I to play the same pieces.

(Moderato con anima), is a typical piece of salon music, in straightforward ternary form (ABA), with a middle section in the minor key. Just towards the end, a couple of chord progressions might just have come from Chopin’s hand himself, while Szalit, as she did in the previous piece, extends things slightly by using a fairly common interrupted cadence when building towards the close. Scène de Ballet (Allegro molto) is a one-in-a-bar waltz, again in ternary form, this time minor-major-minor. There are some attractive piano figurations in the middle section, which come off well, though perhaps the touch might have been a little more legato at times. Harmonically-speaking, the chordal palette is extended on the return of the opening, which does add some welcome variety.

In a set of pieces by a Polish composer, you’d probably expect to encounter either a Mazurka, or a Polonaise, and it’s the former that comes next, marked ‘Moderato’. Far be it for me to criticize a Polish composer writing arguably the most well-loved indigenous dance-form, but while there are moments where you think, ‘This is a mazurka’, the piece seems to lack the essential text-book elements of the form – ‘usually at a lively tempo, with its character defined mostly by the prominence of strong accents on the second or third beat of the bar’. It does, though, feature another of the composer’s emerging fingerprints – switching a melody first heard in the upper part, to what amounts to the equivalent of a cello line below – simple, yet still effective whenever it occurs.

Next up is Valse (Vivace) which, by its very tempo marking, would suggest a brisk style akin to some of Chopin’s most dazzling creations. Unfortunately it seems a very slow ‘vivace’, and consequently, with a number of repeats, too, it does tend to drag somewhat. Perhaps this is why it emerges as the longest track on the CD. Intermezzo (Con moto) opens with a bright dance-like section, after which the music goes into the minor, with a quasi-contrapuntal feel to the writing, though on this occasion. The set then ends with another ‘official’ dance – Gavotte (Tempo giusto) – which fits the pre-requisites, with its catchy little melody, both in the Gavotte and the middle-section Musette. However, it’s still rather predictable, and you very easily find yourself second-guessing what’s coming next. And alas, you are very often correct.

Next come the four Clavierstücke (sic) Op 3, which begin with a Preludium marked ‘Moderato’. It is quite similar to the opening Rêverie, and makes effective use of pedal points – a note which is sustained or repeated, while the harmony changes around it. There is also a passing resemblance to the similarly-haunting Étude in B-flat minor, Op 4 No 3, by Karol Szymanowski, which was first published in 1906, post-dating Szalit’s work by some four years. The Preludium as such, is structurally predictable, with the middle section providing greater harmonic interest. That said, there is nothing here like the impassioned outpouring in Szymanowski’s unashamedly romantic offering.

Piece Two – Capriccio (Allegro scherzando) – is effectively an up-tempo waltz in ternary form – here minor-major-minor – and where there is some detectable degree of ‘scherzando’ (playfully, or to play in a joking, light-hearted, or happy manner) present. But neither the writing, nor the somewhat dry playing, really emphasize this playfulness in the performance.

It’s an Intermezzo (Moderato e tranquillo) that follows, and it feels appropriate to give it a paragraph of its own. On paper, it’s a fairly unassuming idea – a well-shaped melody in the right hand over a repeated chord background. But for arguably the first time on the CD both Tyszecka’s playing, with ne’er a hint of dryness or absence of real legato, does real justice to the composer’s plaintive and eminently-moving lyrical writing, which again is somewhat reminiscent of Grieg in his Lyric Pieces.

The set closes with Impromptu (Vivace), which again is easy on the ear. The opening section makes use of a rippling, harp-like arpeggio accompaniment between the hands, over which an unpretentious melody sings out. The middle section in the minor key provides a more effective contrast this time, because of its slower tempo and change in character. Personally, though, I would have preferred a little added resonance from the sustaining pedal at times.

Szalit’s one elusive-to-come-by song, Im Winter – in the style of a German Lied – brings the CD to a close, and introduces two other Acte Préalable regulars – Katarzyna Dondalska (soprano) and Michał Landowski (piano). Writing about Im Winter, Tyszecka informs us that it is a strophic song with three verses, and opens with a four-bar piano introduction. It has the character of a lullaby, and is marked ‘Andantino’. She doesn’t mention the short coda, where there is a surprise in store for the listener – of which I’ll say no more.

Having already reviewed a number of excellent CDs on the Acte Préalable label, while the present disc introduced me to yet another unknown composer, and did contain a couple of noteworthy moments, I don’t foresee it being on my Christmas List, even given the usual high fidelity of the recording itself.

But to help you decide for yourself, the Acte Préalable website now includes soundbites from the more recent additions to its already extensive catalogue including the present CD. You can sample each track, and then see if you’re interested in a ‘date with Szalit’ – or not.

Philip R Buttall

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