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Karol KĄTSKI (1815-1867)
String Quartet No 1 in D major [26:07]
String Quartet No 2 in C minor [25:24]
String Quintet in G minor, Op 26 [23:30]
Tono Quartet
Aleksander Mazanek (double bass)
rec. 2019, Filharmonia Śląska im. H. M. Góreckiego, Katowice; 2020 Kościół św. Jana, Mikołów, Poland
World Premiere Recordings

The emergence of chamber music owes a great deal to the increasing popularity of being able to make music at home, with fellow enthusiasts, rather than having to rely on attending professional public concerts. Sometimes this would involve whole families at a time, just like the UK witnessed recently, with the seven siblings of Nottingham’s incredibly-talented Kanneh-Mason family.

In nineteenth-century Poland, arguably the pre-eminent musical family consisted of the well-known duo of brothers Henryk, and Józef Wieniawski, whose household further included their mother, and uncle, a professor at the Paris Conservatoire. Competition at the time came from the Kątski family, where musical tradition had been handed over from generation to generation. Of these, the most famous family members were two of Grzegorz Kątski’s four sons. Grzegorz was a pianist and composer, as well as their first music teacher. Like the Wieniawski brothers, Antoni and Apolinary Kątski were also a piano and violin duo, giving successful concerts on the best stages in Europe, and their careers were followed by all the leading European magazines. Their fame, however, somewhat eclipsed that of their eldest brother, Karol, whose chamber music appears here for the first time.

According to contemporary sources, he was born in Kraków in 1815, and, like his more eminent brothers, Karol received his formal education at Warsaw’s General Music School, under the guidance of teacher and violin-virtuoso Józef Bielawski, a member of the city’s National Theatre Orchestra. In 1828, Karol undertook a concert tour with his brother Antoni, visiting, among other places, Lublin, Lvov, Vilnius, Moscow, and St Petersburg. Following one of the concerts, a review was published by the local press, which read: ‘… the Emperor Alexander I of blessed memory, in the last days of his life, noticed this musical family, and following the Emperor’s approval, his Dignified Successor, gave Mr Kątski’s two oldest sons, Karol and Antoni, pensions’.

After the fall of the November Uprising, part of the family was forced to emigrate, with Karol and brother, Stanisław, relocating to Paris in 1831, where they both became music teachers. Karol also turned to composition, for an additional source of income. Here, his works included two quartets, a quintet, piano trios, and a sextet, though most of his legacy lies neglected and forgotten today.

His two string quartets were published in 1862, and are both in classic four-movement design. The First Quartet in D major is dedicated to Józef Kasparek – a Lublin tradesman, who, like the Kątskis, had left Poland after the start of the November Uprising, and settled in France. The first movement opens with a sorrowful introduction (Adagio) in the tonic minor, which soon leads into a bright and breezy regular sonata-form Allegro. Despite the actual date of composition, it is conservative for its time, with very little in the way of any significant surprises. It is well crafted, though, and all four instruments get their chance to share in the thematic material. A little codetta, tagged on to the end of the movement, proves an especially nice little touch.

If the opening movement had been workmanlike, but not really inspirational, then the second movement – Andantequasi allegretto – is a charming little confection, basically modelled on the lines of a Siciliano, with its gentle, pastoral demeanour. In terms of the way the composer uses his instruments here, the delightful effects he achieves and, in particular his more-developed harmonic palette, the movement shows greater maturity, when compared with its predecessor. Kątski invents some attractive textures, particularly where arco and pizzicato are used together. The third movement is marked Minuetto, and opens gracefully (grazioso), with a little question-and–answer dialogue between the lowest three strings, and the first violin, an octave or so higher. The sleeve-note mentions ‘humorous scherzo’ at the start of the Minuet, which did leave me a tad bemused. Graceful, it certainly is – cheerful and appealing, too. But where was the humour, I thought? However, I didn’t have long to wait, when the Minuet moved seamlessly into the Trio – a typical example of a jolly Tyrolean Ländler, in Kątski’s decidedly ‘humorous’ scoring. All in all, then, a lovely fun episode, coming exactly at the right time in the quartet, before the graceful Minuet returns, to recreate the poise and calm of the opening.

The quartet ends with an amiable Allegretto, the basic tempo of which is neither too fast, nor too slow. Kątski skilfully relies on shortening note-lengths, and introducing triplet figurations to imply actual changes in pulse within the movement. He includes a short fugato episode, which further attests to his craftsmanship and technical prowess. Then, at around 6:40 on the clock, and with little more than two minutes left to run, the composer seems to touch base with the Italian operatic world of Rossini, Donizetti, and Bellini, whose works would have been familiar to him in Paris. Here Kątski’s writing does seem to conjure up the coda of an operatic aria, or finale, where the excitement builds to an effective dénouement. But even as the final chord is sounded, its slightly inconclusive scoring suggests that the composer has a tiny bit more to say, which I won’t divulge, at this remove.

The String Quartet No 2 in C minor appeared shortly after the first, and is dedicated to a certain Dr Handvogel, about whom nothing seems to be known. The first movement – Allegro con brio – is in triple time, and, possibly because of the inherently more dramatic feel of C minor, than the D major of the first quartet, Kątski’s movement here is one of far greater passion and fire, finely complemented by the suave emotion of the second subject. Each instrument has an important role in the musical argument, particularly the cello, whose contribution is certainly on a par with that of the first violin. Like me, you may have been wondering why the opening theme sounded vaguely familiar. It is virtually a note-for-note copy of the opening of Mendelssohn’s First Piano Trio in D minor (1839), just a tone lower.

Strangely enough, the second movement – marked Andante. Con molto il sentimento – opens with a sugar-sweet melody, and harmony to match, that could so easily have come from Mendelssohn’s own hand. The middle section raises the emotional stakes, and the opening’s return gives the cello a further opportunity to shine, while his colleagues weave elaborate filigree above. Then the composer effectively swaps roles, by assigning the cello a cheerful pizzicato line, which helps move things on with some degree of gusto, before Kątski brings the movement to a close with a coda of some sweet allure.

The third movement is marked Scherzo sempre scherzando, and what a delightful little number it is – a true scherzo in triple time, with a decided contrapuntal input, as fleet of foot as anything by Mendelssohn, who does seem to be exerting some perhaps subconscious influence on this quartet. Either way, Kątski’s most delicate of endings here, could be right out of Mendelssohn’s ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’ music. The booklet informs us that another Allegretto concludes the second quartet, just as it did the first. Allegrettos by name, they may well be, but stylistically they appear worlds apart. The finale of Quartet No 2 depicts a rustic, folk-like setting, where drones and bare fifths abound. The fact that no specific Polish dance-form is mentioned as such, would seem to suggest that the composer was simply making a nostalgic return to his ethnic roots, some 800 miles to the east. We know he has the technical equipment to write an extended movement where counterpoint and harmony mingle without a glitch, but here Kątski adds genuine inspiration and some ethnic flavouring to the mix, to produce a successful and effective finale in anyone’s book.

The String Quintet in G minor, Op 26, was published in 1856, and its very dedication to King Leopold I of Belgium testifies both to the composer’s musical expertise, as well as his social standing at the time. The vast majority of string quartets feature two violins, viola and cello. To upgrade to a quintet format, there is an element of choice available to the individual composer. The standard solution is to add a second viola, like Mozart, Brahms, Mendelssohn, and many others, which consequently strengthens the upper-middle of the harmony. Schubert, however, was really the only major composer to prefer adding a second cello instead, where now the lower-middle of the texture is enhanced, as witness the gorgeous sonorities in his iconic Quintet in C. A far smaller number of generally less-well-known composers favoured a combination of three violins, viola, and cello, whereas Kątski went for the equally-less-common scoring where a double bass is added to the existing string quartet format. Boccherini wrote three ‘double-bass’ quintets, Dvořák his Op 77 in G, and there are six by George Onslow. Apart from Dvořák’s (1875), the other quintets mentioned all appeared before Kątski’s. Surprisingly, given the somewhat erudite nature of the CD booklet, no mention seems to have been made of Kątski’s departure from the norm here, and the subtle, yet noticeable effect it does have on the sound overall.

The first movement – Allegro moderato – opens sparsely with a rather lugubrious theme from the cello in its rich tenor register, to which the composer progressively adds in the upper instruments. Once all five players take up the theme proper, we notice the characteristic and effective pizzicatos from the double-bass, which can give the sound more of a string ensemble/divertimento quality, than of a string quartet plus one. In early divertimentos, the double bass would very often be heard strengthening the cello-line, an octave below, but in Kątski’s quintet, as early as the second subject, for example, it has its own independent line, allowing the composer the luxury of having virtually two separate self-contained ‘choirs’, one lower, and one higher, as on this occasion. While a slightly earlier work than the two quartets, Kątski’s harmonic palette bizarrely seems somewhat richer and more developed, but this is always an inherent benefit when writing in five-part-harmony, rather than four. Everything then proceeds efficiently, if not unremarkably, and, despite the dark clouds at the start, the sun has definitely come out by the end, with its optimistic close in the tonic major.
This is followed by a lyrical Adagio. Con molto il sentimento – in the booklet’s track-list, ‘Con’ is shown incorrectly as ‘Com’. At the very outset of what is the slow movement, the composer once more makes telling use of his two ‘choirs’, giving the tender and affectionate theme to the lower instruments, but which order he subsequently reverses on its reprise. This is undoubtedly the emotional heart of the quintet, and one that really deserves to be far better known. Even Kątski’s decision to close on a plagal cadence (the so-called ‘amen’ variant), adds an almost spiritual quality to the writing.

The third movement – Allegretto scherzoso – takes a step back from the romantic world of the slow movement, to one which evokes the presence of a youthful Beethoven, in a scherzo of which the German master would, no doubt, have felt proud to have written at the time. Kątski does have a little surprise in store, when, instead of modulating from its original key of E flat major, to a related one for the expected trio, he gradually brings the music to a halt on a chord of D major, which then leads seamlessly into the finale (Andante. Presto).

This opens in G major, and presents another catchy little tune in duple time. After a short while, though, we realise that this will be the theme on which Kątski will produce a most inventive and attractive short set of variations, all played segue. The variations largely reflect the usual ploy of varying note lengths, but here there is also one given over to some gentle tweaking of the theme’s underlying harmony. As mentioned earlier, the finale is marked Andante. Presto – but there is no mention of ‘theme or variations’. As the tempo marking stands, it would normally imply a slower, and generally shorter introductory section, followed by a quicker, and usually much longer section, effectively the main body of the movement. This, we now know is certainly not the case here, since the Andante comprises the whole of the ‘theme and variations’, and the Presto section is effectively nothing more than a mere fourteen-bar coda in triple time – which is just about long enough to round off the movement with sufficient panache, and give this highly-original and entertaining quintet a reasonable sense of closure.

There isn’t much information to be had specifically about the Tono Quartet, in fact just individual biographical information on its members. On a previous CD I reviewed, when the quartet played chamber music by Józef Wieniawski, I felt at the time that they played with true stylistic empathy, and with abundant energy and enthusiasm. This is certainly true of their Kątski CD, too, and in fact I feel their playing has now moved up a notch, resulting here in a truly vibrant performance that has all the presence of a live performance about it, which the closely-miked recording captures with impressive fidelity.

The booklet notes are in Polish, with an English translation. So often, though, I find myself making the same comment at this juncture, namely that it always seems so abundantly clear, that the translation has been undertaken by someone for whom English is not their first language.

Musicologist, and Józef-Wieniawski-specialist, Dr Karol Rzepecki, in summing up the CD, recognizes that it features the chamber works of a now-forgotten, yet ‘phenomenal violinist, composer, and teacher’, who was even overshadowed by his younger brothers during his lifetime. Despite all this, Karol Kątski’s output reflects both the spirit of his time, while simultaneously retaining a distinct element of originality – an appraisal with which I wholeheartedly agree, while also feeling the need to acknowledge the sheer determination and single-mindedness of Acte Préalable’s Jan Jarnicki, for unsparingly championing so many neglected or forgotten composers – the Patron Saint of Unknown Music and Musicians, if ever there was one.

Philip R Buttall

Tono Quartet: Agnieszka Sawicka (1st violin), Grzegorz Witek (2nd violin), Beata Raszewska (viola), Łukasz Tudzierz (cello)

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