• Paderewski: Piano Music (Hyperion, 2007)


Paderewski: Piano Sonata and Variations
Hyperion CDA 67562 (2007)
Jonathan Plowright

• Piano Sonata (1903)
• Variations and Fugue in A minor (1884)
• Variations and Fugue in E flat on an Original Theme (1903)



It is approaching 150 years since the birth of Ignacy Jan Paderewski (1860-1941) and there remains a certain ambivalence about his legacy.  Is he remembered primarily as a pianist or as a composer-pianist?  And where do his passionate advocacy of Polish independence leading up to and during the Great War (1914-18) and his subsequent but brief stint as Prime Minister of newly-independent Poland fit in with his artistic life?   The composition of his Symphony in B minor ‘Polonia’, op.24 (1903-08), recorded on Hyperion CDA67056, is a telling witness of Paderewski’s embrace of nationalism, politics and music (it includes a subtle weaving of the national anthem into the fabric of the finale).  Yet the Symphony remains an isolated example in his output and of course does not refer to Paderewski the pianist.

If Paderewski is still best known as a performer, this is despite the lack of an extensive recorded legacy and the fact that, appearances notwithstanding, he found performing torturous.  The repertoire with which he is associated tends to be by other composers, notably Chopin, rather than his own music.  When he toured as a concerto soloist, however, he often programmed his two concertante pieces, the Piano Concerto op.17 (1882-88) and the Polish Fantasy, op.19 (1893), both of them fairly well served by sound recordings, especially since the 1990s.  His solo repertoire is still more or less unknown.  It largely consists, with the exception of the pieces on this CD, of small items aimed for the salon rather than the concert hall, sometimes gathered into loose groups, such as Chants du voyageur, op.8 (1881-82), Album de Mai, op.10 (by 1884) and Miscellanea, op.16 (1885-96), which includes one of the best examples of the composer’s melodic gifts, the Legend no.1 in A flat major.  There are many examples of Paderewski’s attachment to national folk genres, such as the mazurka and krakowiak, as in Polish Dances, op.9 (1882-84) or Tatra Album, op.12 (1883-84).

And then there is that miniature, the Minuet in G major, with which Paderewski’s name has been associated, for good or evil, since he wrote it in 1886.  The Minuet comes from a set of six Humoresques de concert, op.14 (1885-87), the first three of which are ‘à l’antique’ (Minuet, Sarabande and Caprice ‘genre Scarlatti’) and the second three are ‘moderne’ (BurlesqueIntermezzo polacco and Cracovienne fantastique).  The ‘antique’ strain in Paderewski’s compositions is also evident in the repertoire on this CD, but the nationalistic thread is notable for its absence.

Piano Sonata

It is fair to assume that, with the Piano Sonata in E flat minor, op. 21 (1887-1903), Paderewski was laying claim to belong to the line of pianists who also composed in large-scale musical forms.  By this stage in his career, his pianistic reputation was colossal but he was exhausted by touring and needed to set himself new goals.  1903 was the year not only of the Piano Sonata, but also of the Variations and Fugue, op.23 and of the initial sketches of the Symphony.  As he commented in his memoirs, ‘… in 1903 I remained almost the entire year at Morges [Paderewski’s palatial home in Switzerland], and began to compose.  First of all I wrote my Piano Sonata, which is one of my most important and best works.  But it is extremely difficult and for that reason will never be very popular.’  It might well be argued that difficulty does not preclude popularity, but it is true, for example, that neither Brahms’ piano sonatas nor those of Paderewski’s compatriot Karol Szymanowski (1882-1937) have matched the resonance with the public of their other keyboard works.  In Paderewski’s case, there is also the matter of his music’s conservative style.

Paderewski’s Piano Sonata opens powerfully, with two important motivic ideas: a rising scale answered by a dipping idea, both of which emphasise a chromatic A natural, not part of the movement’s home key of E flat minor.  This initial contradiction symbolises the turbulent character of what follows.  While the movement follows the general outlines of sonata structure, it does so by almost completely avoiding any confirmation of the tonic key.  Within a few seconds of the opening flourishes, Paderewski launches into a restless sequence of statements, none of them in E flat minor, of a short melodic idea.  Already, Paderewski’s world embraces not only Chopin and Liszt but even Grieg.  After a molto agitato section, the second subject (in B flat minor) is introduced, another rising scale which though marked con passione is gentle in tone.  It is a wonderful example of Paderewski’s melodic style; the texture is simple but affecting.  It quickly gives rise to more flamboyant gestures before the exposition ends in the conventional relative major (G flat) with repetitions of an unusual chordal idea.  The comparatively short development explores all the principal ideas of the movement through both canonic imitation and modulations, even seeming to make a passing reference to the opening of Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde.  The recapitulation follows a familiar path until it unexpectedly dissolves into trills and semiquavers.  This is the prelude to the return of the second subject, an occasion which marks the first – and magical – confirmation of the tonic key. True to form, Paderewski soon moves on and the coda, which involves further canonic imitation of the opening two motifs, concludes with an unconventional cadence onto E flat minor.

The second movement has the air of a song without words.  The opening harmonies – a linking of an augmented triad with a chord some distance from the movement’s home key of G flat major – recalls the advanced harmonic thinking of Wagner or Wolf.  Paderewski, however, soon returns to more traditional harmonic and tonal patterns with the main theme, marked teneramente, recalling the idiom of his exact contemporary, Edward MacDowell (links with Rakhmaninov may also be heard).  This movement, too, ends with a sidelong cadence.  This is deliberate, because the finale follows immediately by repeating the penultimate chord from the Andante before launching into a brilliant toccata.

The finale bears out the composer’s assertion of technical difficulty as it demands the highest level of clarity and dexterity in the persistent semiquaver figurations.  The main theme’s intimate relation to the opening of the first movement underlines Paderewski’s embrace of cyclic thematicism.  As the finale unfurls, his kinship with Rakhmaninov is further enforced.  Towards the end of the exposition, the main motif is given in sixths, and this presages the theme of the substantial fugal section which acts as the development.  Paderewski’s fugal writing again follows precedent, with Brahms perhaps the closest model.  The return of this theme in sixths at the end of the recapitulation heralds the Presto coda where the home key of E flat minor is finally allowed to assert itself (with a last-second allusion to the Sonata’s main theme), bringing to an end a powerful thirty-minute peroration in which the journey has always been more important than the arrival.

Variations and Fugue in A minor

Paderewski’s ‘antique’ tendency is most obviously realised in his use of the fugue as an important structural component of all three pieces on this CD.  And the two sets of Variations and Fugue are even more grounded in conservative traditions than the Piano Sonata.  Interestingly, the two sets virtually frame Paderewski’s mature compositional career (there was an early, unpublished set for string quartet written in 1882).  Op. 11 (1884) was composed just before or in the early months of his highly significant period of study in Vienna with the Germanised Polish pianist and teacher Theodor Leschetizky.  Although Leschetizky was only ten years Paderewski’s senior, he had already established a high reputation as a teacher prior to Paderewski’s arrival, and his roster of high-calibre students has since passed into history.

Op.11 is a set of 15 variations with a fugal finale.  Its straightforward nature again shows his closeness to Brahms, with whom he had much contact when he was studying in Vienna in 1884-85.  The theme, Andante non troppo, has an uncomplicated 16-bar structure and a melodic-harmonic simplicity (with a touch of modality at the start) that gives scope for the wide-range of treatments that follows.  The early variations are standard fare, although III and IV introduce elements (feroce grace-notes, oompah-oompah dance rhythms) that suggest that Paderewski might have had his tongue in his cheek.  Variations V-VII are in the tonic major: V combines con forza with tranquillo in a flexible tempo rubato, VI implies that Paderewski knew Brahms’ ‘St Anthony’ Variations, and the accentual teasing of VII carries over into VIII, which reinstates A minor.  IX returns to the opening theme, this time with chromatic elaboration in the harmony, and is complemented by the gentle asynchronicity of X.  XI is a march of the tumbril, rather than a conventional funeral march, though its sombre tone is immediately dispelled by the sweeping right-hand glissandos of XII.  The academic side of Paderewski’s compositional thinking at this time is evidenced by the canonic treatment of XIII, mollified temporarily by the chordal musings of the last variation, XIV.  The fugue that follows is really a pastiche of 18th-century practices, with trills aplenty.  Its amiable quirkiness is assured by the contrast between the opening rising phrase being balanced by a chromatic descent, with its almost foppish ornamentation.  Once again, the ‘antique’ shows its hold over Paderewski’s imagination.

Variations and Fugue in E flat on an Original Theme

If Op.11 is still very much a student work, generally light in tone, the Variations and Fugue op.23 is a different matter altogether.  Yet this too had its origins in Paderewski’s early years: ‘The second work [of 1903] was the completion of my third set of Variations, which I had begun while still in Strasbourg [1885-86].  I had retained only a few of the variations from that period, so I wrote a series of new ones ending with the fugue.  This work is my best piano composition, I think.  It is extremely difficult and perhaps too long, but it contains quite a few things which were then almost a revelation in their character and novelty.’

Evidently, E flat minor was in the Swiss air in 1903, because op.23, like the Piano Sonata, is in this key.  But whereas the Sonata spends most of its time assiduously avoiding the home tonality, the Variations, by the very nature, are rooted in it.  Yet the stalking pesante theme in bare octaves also avoids absolute confirmation of E flat minor until its final bars.  It is also not in the traditionally balanced four four-bar phrases but in three eight-bar phrases, creating an ABA thematic structure for the ensuing 20 variations.  These appear singly (II) or in groups (III-V), some staying close to the theme, others moving further afield.  And sometimes different elements cut across such categorisation (for example, the move to sharp keys in the central portions of V and VI).  The ‘antique’ strain is evident in the mordents and other ornamentation of II, VII-VIII and XVII, but this is more than offset by what Paderewski seems to be identifying in his words ‘revelation’ and ‘novelty’.

Variation VI is a case in point.  Its main motif is a halting, fanfare-like rhythm in the bass register, but the central portion, through its harmony and sonorous chording, seems to reach out to Debussy.  The French dimension returns in VIII, whose delicate decorations parallel, even perhaps anticipate, Ravel’s evocation of the 18th century.   Sometimes the groupings are formed partly through similarity (the move to the tonic major for X and XI) and partly through contrast (X is a grandiose, bell-like 3/4, XI is arguably Paderewski’s wittiest example of metrical play, faery-like in its sprightliness).  Variations XII-XIII share the same newly-developed motif, while XII and XIV return again to the world of the Brahmsian diaspora and the music of MacDowell.  Variation XV Andantino, con tenerezza is the strangest.  It is in the key of F sharp, though the tonality is disguised by its characteristic crushed seconds which increasingly lend an atonal feel to the harmony.  XVI brings the music back to more familiar territory, although the notation of the trills, involving both hands, is an interesting feature.  As the set approaches the fugue, XIX revels in Brahmsian chunkiness and, as in the Piano Sonata, the fugue itself is prefaced, in Variation XX, by an initial exploration of its main theme.  The fugue is a more sophisticated example of the genre than that in either of the other works on this CD – there is some extensive stretto and augmentation in the concluding pages – and the work ends with a resounding celebration of its home key.  Paderewski evidently thought highly of both of his keyboard works from 1903 and, even though much of his admittedly small output is slight, these two works, and the earlier op.11, are testimony to his more substantial achievement as a composer-pianist.

© 2007 Adrian Thomas


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