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Stojowski FCs DUX1773
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Zygmunt Stojowski (1870-1946)
Piano Concerto No.1 in F sharp minor Op.3 (1890)
Piano Concerto No.2 in A flat major Prologue, scherzo and variations Op.32 (1909-10)
Marek Szlezer (piano: No. 1)
Witold Wilczek (piano: No. 2)
Jerzy Semkow Polish Sinfonia Iuventus Orchestra/Marek Wroniszewski, Zofia Guz
rec. 2021, Witold Lutosławski Concert Studio of Polish Radio, Warsaw
Booklet notes in Polish and English
DUX 1773 [69]

As a teenager I found many an old score in the Henry Moore Music Library in Manchester – what a wonderful resource at the time – and amongst them was a delightful little Valse by Sigismond (sic) Stojowski – op.12 no.2 for those who are interested. I loved playing that, and still occasionally play it, but it was one of those pieces in my early days of collecting that put me on the path of seeking out unsung composers. An International Piano Archives LP provided a few recordings of Stojowski playing his own music but it is only relatively recently that Jonathan Plowright and Hyperion have filled in more of the gaps. He has recorded the same programme we find here (Hyperion Records CDA67314) as well as a marvellous selection of the solo piano music (Hyperion Records CDA67437). These and other releases are thankfully beginning to flesh out Stojowski's discography.

Zygmunt Stojowski was an out and out romanticist in a world that began to shy away from that style in the mid twentieth century so his music has slipped into neglect but it was championed by the likes of Tschaikowsky, Pierre Monteux, Jascha Heifetz, Arthur Nikisch, Damrosch, father and son and Leopold Stokowski as well as by pianists of the stature of Josef Hofmann, Rudolf Ganz, Ignaz Friedman and Ignacy Jan Paderewski, who recorded some of his music. The latter also taught Stojowski who considered that, along with violinist-composer Władysław Górski (1846-1915), Paderewski had the most profound influence on him as a musician. His other teachers include Polish composer Władysław Żeleński, French pianist Louis Diémer, who included his pupils' works in his recitals, and Léo Delibes. He moved to America in 1905 and made his home in New York until his death in 1946 where apart from composing he gave concerts and taught; his many students included Mischa Levitski and Oscar Levant.

The first Piano Concerto was premiered in 1891 with the composer at the piano and another composer, Benjamin Godard conducting. To give an idea of Stojowski's status the work was played in a concert devoted to his works and later in life he was to be the first Polish composer to have an entire concert devoted to his music by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. Cast in three movements the Concerto is a wonderfully constructed work, bristling with difficulties but with some beautiful melodies and moments of high drama. The opening is enigmatic, just a low unharmonised melody in the cellos and double basses before the orchestra gradually joins in, first a horn then the oboe while tension mounts; the drama and pace is driven by an insistent timpani motif that repeats as the tempo increases. The soloist's entry is as dramatic as one could wish with two keyboard-spanning arpeggios before things relax down for the opening theme played by the soloist. As in any good romantic piano concerto the action swings from tender and lyrical melodic sections to fast paced keyboard figurations, heroic and delicate by turns. The second movement is a beautiful Romance that opens with strings accompanying a horn melody. Much of this movement is based around this theme, overlaid with decoration though there is a contrasting middle section full of surging drama. The finale is described in the booklet as marked by a large dose of rhythm-driven energy and that describes this vigorous movement in a nutshell. Once again the soloist is kept very busy with a muscular keyboard part that would be exciting to hear in concert. A review in the Musical Times in 1893 remarked that except in the hands of a great pianist it would stand but a poor chance. Thankfully the pianist in this performance, Marek Szlezer, is more than up to the challenge of the entire concerto and I would compare him very favourably with the fabulous performance by Jonathan Plowright; it helps that the piano is slightly better placed in the mix.

The second Concerto, subtitled Prologue, scherzo and variations is just as appealing. Once again the composer premiered it, this time with Arthur Nikisch at the helm and the work's dedicatee, Paderewski performed it at Carnegie Hall in 1916 under the baton of Walter Damrosch alongside Elgar's Polonia, also dedicated to Paderewski. Unlike the first concerto it is a more through written, fantasy like piece. The opening of the Prologue is characterised by thematic material carried by the orchestra amid cadenzas from the soloist. The second theme is folk-like and is initially given by the soloist, a simple unison presentation over a chordal orchestral accompaniment. All these features combine as the movement continues and passionate heights are reached before the quicksilver scherzo suddenly makes an entrance. The interplay between soloist and orchestra is dizzying in its intricacy and it must be noted that in both of these works the orchestral writing is rich and inventively scored, a full partner with the soloist. The Variations are based on another folk-like melody in the style of a dumka, an melancholy epic ballad of mostly Ukrainian origin. Interestingly the first variation is given to the orchestra alone with the piano joining in similar mood for the second variation. The tempo increases as the variations progress; variation four is jaunty with its constant dotted rhythms and variation five features fleet semiquavers but things really take off at the treacherous repeated note passages in the con fuoco sixth variation, fiery indeed. From variation eight we return to the key of the work as a whole, A flat major, and the orchestra now introduces a variation of the second theme from the prologue and this remains in the variation mix to the end. Although there is some more highly virtuosic writing, the finger-twisting, sorcerer's apprentice-like first half of the extended final variation the work ends in tranquility with some magical harmonic touches in the final few bars.

Whereas Jonathan Plowright played both concertos for Hyperion honours are divided here and it is Witold Wilczek who is the admirable soloist for the second Concerto. The orchestral contributions are as strong and the Jerzy Semkow Polish Sinfonia Iuventus Orchestra respond with enthusiasm and verve under the skilful baton of Marek Wroniszewski. Oddly the Romance of the first piano concerto is conducted by Zofia Guz without explanation as to why directing duties were split within the one concerto beyond the fact that she is the orchestra's assistant conductor; no matter as she acquits herself well but it is a situation I have not come across on a recording before.

These two concertos are supreme examples of romantic pianism at its best and with such a wonderful fusion of high quality writing for both orchestra and soloist, great melodic invention and thrilling virtuosity they deserve to be much better known. A great disc.

Rob Challinor

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