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Legendary Polish Pianists
Barbara Hesse-Bukowska, Henryk Sztompka, Marian Filar, Regina Smendzianka (piano)
rec. 1949-59
MELOCLASSIC MC1063 [65+59]

Meloclassic's grand unearthing of radio treasures continues with four concertos played by pianists who have fallen into neglect. I had heard recordings by Hesse-Bukowksa and Smendzianka and it is to Hesse-Bukowska that I owe my discovery, many years ago, of Ludomir Rozycki's beautiful Ballade for piano and orchestra. Sztompka and Filar were just names in a dictionary for me prior to this release.

The earliest pianist here is Henryk Sztompka born on 1 April, 1901 in Bogusławka, part of Poland up to the end of WWII. His main teacher was Chopin specialist Józef Turczyński (1884-1953) at the Warsaw Conservatory where his orchestral debut was in Rachmaninov's C minor Concerto, still a relatively new work, under an orchestra conducted by composer-pianist Henryk Melcer-Szczawiński. After graduating in 1926 he entered the inaugural International Chopin Competition where he won the Polish Radio prize for the best interpretation of a Chopin Mazurka – he went on to record the complete Mazurkas for Eterna in the late 1950s – but he lost out on the top three spots to Lev Oborin, Stanisław Szpinalski and Róża Etkin-Moszkowska. He moved to Paris after the competition starting to build up a concert career but perhaps most importantly was introduced to the illustrious Ignacy Jan Paderewski who invited him to be part of a select group of pianists to benefit from tuition at his villa in Switzerland. Being a pupil of Paderewski could only bolster his career and he appeared with great success throughout Europe in a repertoire that was heavy on Chopin but which also took in Beethoven, Schumann, Liszt and even Paderewski's Polish Fantasy, a terrific piece that has become something of a rarity. Before WWII he taught at the Conservatory in Toruń and spent the war years in Warsaw. He recommenced his concert career after the war as well as taking a post at the State Higher School of Music in Kraków where he became dean of the piano department in 1957. He died in Kraków in 1963.

He plays the F minor Concerto of Chopin beautifully. I was a little surprised at the rubato in the slower sections, sometimes holding back just a little before he moves to the next bar, especially in the second theme, A flat section where pianist and bassoonist have a rather indulgent duet. Once the intermediate figurations begin however the tempo is lifted so the movement is certainly not starved of vitality. None of the faster sections are treated flamboyantly; Sztompka seems to prefer restraint and clarity while remaining admirably fluent. The Larghetto is the highlight for me; I find myself entranced by his singing tone in even the most pianissimo phrases, his subtle pedalling and the delicacy of his filigree. He aims for character in the middle section rather than high drama. The finale is full of zest and life, Sztompka amply demonstrating that not only has he fingers but can also deliver swift passagework even at a low dynamic. He is ably supported by Abendroth and his Leipzig players though as was often the case at the time much of the music in the opening and closing orchestral tuttis is dramatically cut. This is also the case in the other Chopin Concerto, the first in E minor where Abendroth conducts the radio orchestra in Berlin. The pianist here is Barbara Hesse-Bukowska who was born in Łódź in February 1930 to a musical family; her father played violin with the Warsaw Radio orchestra and her mother was a pianist. After lessons with her mother she studied with Maria Glińska-Wąsowska at the Warsaw Conservatory as well as with Margerita Trombini-Kazuro who was her tutor during the German occupation in World War 2. Her debut, under the auspices of the charitable organisation Rada Główna Opiekuńcza took place in 1942 but it was after the war that she came to international notice with a second place prize in the fourth International Chopin Competition in 1949. Though she was only placed fifth in the Long-Thibaud competition in 1953 she was awarded the Prix Chopin and she had a long and successful career after that, maintaining an extensive touring schedule alongside teaching and appearances on many jury panels.

The E minor Concerto is probably my favourite work in the genre and was only the second concertante work I had heard some 46 years ago (the first was Bax's Symphonic Variations which probably explains my enduring curiosity for rarities). It is refreshing therefore to hear such a wonderful performance of it and one that makes me realise that it is not often that I am wholly convinced by a performance; there is usually some small, or on occasion large, detail that I might pick up on that doesn't quite sit right. Not so here. Bukowska gives us a marvellously balanced performance with no histrionics, subtle rubato and phrasing and a clean, seamless technique. Her impeccable singing tone must also be mentioned; I have recently enjoyed Alexander Uninsky's 1958 radio performance on the same label (Meloclassic MC1058 review) though I did find him a little lacking in charm; Hesse-Bukowksa charms easily without sentimentality in the many lyrical passages and has technique left over in the virtuoso sections to bring shape and colour; her left hand trills at the opening of the final section have a delicious bite and there is wonderful control of dynamic contrast even in the most strenuous passages.

Another neglected female pianist is Regina Smendzianka, born six years before Hesse-Bukowksa in 1924. Her family were musicians - both parents played the piano – and young Regina showed promise when she played aged four. Her parents were her first tutors but she was soon entrusted to Russian pianist Maria Zofia Drzewiecka in Torún who then went on to teach her at the Pomeranian Music Society Conservatory. She also had lessons there from Henryk Sztompka. She gained recognition at an early age, receiving an award at a Warsaw competition in 1933 alongside pianists such as Halina Czerny-Stefańska and gave a short radio recital at the age of eleven. The war brought an end to study for Smendzianka and she went into hiding in Kraków; she was without a piano for two years and only on a poor broken down instrument after that though that did enable her to expand her repertoire. She remained in Kraków after the war and continued her studies with Sztompka who took up a post in the city. After a relatively poor showing in the 1949 Chopin competition, eleventh place, she struggled to find concert opportunities; those were going to the better placed competitors such as Czerny-Stefańska, Hesse-Bukowksa and Rysard Bakst, a pianist who later taught in Manchester. A change at the Ministry of Culture in 1956 brought an upturn in her fortunes and extensive world tours followed. She made recordings – I remember a Chopin and Moniuszko recital – and went on to teach in Kraków and Warsaw where she died in 2011.

She gave this performance of Prokofiev's C major Concerto in 1959. A Chicago Tribune review of a performance of Chopin's F minor Concerto and Paderewski's Polish Fantasy, quoted in the booklet describes her playing in salon scale and pastel colours which certainly isn't what I hear in this vivid performance. There are others who will play with greater dynamic range certainly but there is no noticeable lack here and the playing is full of vigour and colour and she holds her own against the orchestral writing. The recording helps, letting every detail through with wonderful clarity. I consider the second movement theme and variations to be the highlight here; variations two and three are thrilling in their energy and vehemence but it is the tranquil fourth variation where she shines, teasing and beguiling with its chromatic movement and it is hard to imagine comments about salon playing when listening to the robustness of her rhythms and sheer virtuosity in the closing variations. This continues into the finale but again I find myself enchanted by her delicate playing at the enigmatic, playful quieter theme in the middle of the movement. The theme rings out effortlessly at the pochissimo meno mosso and there is a true lightness in the right hand runs at the leggierissimo that follows. All in all this is a wholly satisfying account.

The final pianist in this quartet is Marian Filar. He was born in Warsaw in December 1917 and his burgeoning talent was moulded by Josef Goldberg, director of the Moniuszko School of Music. He studied with Goldberg until he was twelve and, having played a Mozart Concerto aged 12 to great acclaim with the Warsaw Philharmonic – they asked for a repeat performance a few months later – he began studies with Zbigniew Drzewiecki and was soon accepted at the Warsaw Conservatory. During this time he heard many world famous pianists and even had the opportunity to play for Ignaz Friedman, playing Franciszek Brzeziński's Theme and variations op.3, a piece he was to record alongside piano music by Szymanowski. The tragedy and heartache of the second world war is a familiar story when talking of Polish musicians and Filar's experience was no exception; he fled to Lemberg where he continued to study, now with Halina Levitska but after graduating he had to flee Lemberg, arriving in Warsaw where he was put into forced labour. Though he spent time in concentration camps he was fortunate enough to be liberated, good fortune that didn't favour his parents and siblings. He began to give concerts but seemed to have lost confidence in his muse; a fellow pianist recommended he play for Walter Gieseking who was impressed enough that he took Filar as a pupil for five years and helped his career considerably. Despite this he never became a household name and found it hard to fill recital halls though he had played with orchestras of the quality of the Chicago Symphony and Philadelphia. He did tour and played at Carnegie Hall in 1965 but like the other pianists on this set he spent a lot of time teaching; he made two recordings for the obscure Colosseum Record Co. and co-wrote a book about his life from the start of the war entitled From Buchenwald to Carnegie Hall. He died in 2012.

His Tchaikowsky Concerto dates from 1949, the year before he arrived in the United States. Filar is clearly a pianist of big passions and there is more than a hint in the opening movement that he wants to drive forward a little more quickly than his Frankfurt colleagues want to but not to the detriment of the performance. I love the contrast of moods he brings to the first movement cadenza and his flashes of temperament. Elegant and supple in the second movement he does not treat the central scherzo as a race to the finish that many pianists do and balances it successfully with its outer sections. The finale is solid and exciting without being flamboyant though Filar's technique, as in all this music, is rock solid. Orchestral support is mostly fine though as I say it doesn't always respond to Filar's enthusiasm and the strings are occasionally less than refined.

I have loved discovering these pianists and especially Hesse-Bukowska and Smendzianka who deliver performances that I will return to again and again. Production is excellent as always with good transfers of these broadcast recordings and there is plenty of detail in the biographical notes by Michael Waiblinger as well as a photo of Smendzianka and Sztompka at two pianos surrounded by his other students at the Conservatory of the Pomeranian Music Society. A set well worth exploring.

Rob Challinor

Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849)
Piano Concerto No 1 in E minor, Op 11 (1830)
Barbara Hesse-Bukowska (piano)
Rundfunk Sinfonieorchester Berlin, Hermann Abendroth
rec. 20 Feb, 1955 Berlin, Fernmelderechnungsamt, radio studio recording
Frédéric Chopin
Piano Concerto No 2 in F minor, Op 21 (1829-30)
Henryk Sztompka (piano)
Rundfunk Sinfonieorchester Leipzig, Hermann Abendroth
rec. 5 May, 1952 Leipzig, Funkhaus Springerstrasse, radio studio recording

Peter Ilyich Tchaikowsky (1840-1893)
Piano Concerto No 1 in B-flat minor, Op 23 (1874-5, rev. 1879)
Marian Filar (piano)
Rundfunk Sinfonieorchester Frankfurt, Winfried Zillig
rec. 16 Feb, 1949 Frankfurt, Altes Funkhaus, radio studio recording
Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953)
Piano Concerto No 3 in C major, Op 26 (1917-1921)
Regina Smendzianka (piano)
Rundfunk Sinfonieorchester Leipzig, Herbert Kegel
rec. 20 Apr, 1959 Leipzig, Funkhaus Springerstrasse, radio studio recording

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