• Paderewski: Symphony (Hyperion, 1998/2010)

 

Paderewski: Symphony in B minor (Polonia)
Hyperion CDA 67056 (1998), reissued as Helios CDH 55351 (2010)
BBC Scottish SO, cond. Jerzy Maksymiuk

• Symphony in B minor (Polonia)

 

 

 

Ignacy Jan Paderewski (1860-1941) had a career unlike any musician since Liszt.  Not only was he lionised worldwide as a pianist, he was also a composer of some distinction.  Furthermore, his strong patriotic sensibilities lead to his appointment in 1919 as the first Prime Minister of newly independent Poland.  His country had been under foreign occupation and partition by Austria, Prussia and Russia since the 1790s and as a consequence its native culture was at best sidelined, at worst ruthlessly suppressed.  Nevertheless, Paderewski was able in 1910 to unveil a monument in Kraków (for which he had provided the funding) to commemorate the 500th anniversary of one of Poland’s greatest military victories, the battle of Grunwald against the Teutonic Order.  His public profile became even more prominent at the outbreak of the First World War, when he not only concertised widely in the USA to raise money for Poland but also organised the Polish Victims Relief Fund in the UK.  Co-opted onto the committee was Edward Elgar, who subsequently wrote a symphonic prelude, Polonia (1915), which he dedicated to Paderewski.  It concludes with a rousing orchestration of Poland’s national anthem – Jeszcze Polska nie zginęła (Poland will not perish).

Paderewski’s extra-musical activities did not spring from nowhere.  They had been prefaced by the composition of his last substantial work, the Symphony (1903-08).  It too referred to the Polish national anthem, but more obliquely than Elgar, and was also called Polonia.  It appears likely that this title was borrowed from a series of eight ‘cartoons’ by Artur Grottger (1837-67), whose work portrayed the realism of everyday life and struggle under Russian occupation.  His Polonia (published in 1863), with individual pictures called ‘Forging the Scythes’ or ‘After the Enemy has Withdrawn’, was an immediate response to the failed insurrection of 1863-64, known as the January Rising.  And when, on the 40th anniversary of the Rising, Paderewski took a year’s sabbatical from the concert platform in order to compose, one of the works which he began was the Symphony.  The original sketches were made in 1903 at his Swiss home near Morges, but the final score was not completed until 1908.  It was given a private performance in Lausanne on 26 December, 1908, before its public premiere in Boston on 12 February, 1909, by the Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Max Fiedler.  European performances soon followed: Hans Richter conducted it in London and André Messager gave the French premiere in Paris.  The Polish premiere took place in Warsaw in January 1911.

In the nineteenth century, Polish symphonies were thin on the ground.  Given its geographical and political status, its culture often looked eastwards.  Opera, song and orchestral programme music were favoured genres rather than symphonies, concertos or quartets.  Paderewski would have been familiar with the music by fellow Polish composers, such as Władysław Żeleński (1837-1921) and Zygmunt Noskowski (1846-1909), as well as with the younger generation of Mieczysław Karłowicz (1876-1909) and Karol Szymanowski (1882-1937).  Their musical outlook at the turn of the century was based on the examples of Mendelssohn, Liszt and Tchaikowsky, as well as recent trends in German music.

Paderewski matched their turn-of-the-century interest primarily in the Slavonic rather than the Germanic traditions when planning his Symphony.  It is an expansive work (and would have been even larger had he fulfilled his original intention of including a scherzo) which is unconcerned with taut symphonic structures, preferring to follow the Lisztian example.  The same features may be found in Paderewski’s other large-scale pieces, the Piano Concerto (1888), the Polish Fantasy for piano and orchestra (1903), and the Piano Sonata (1903).  This recording is the first outside Poland of the complete symphony: until recently it was usually performed in a cut version which took chunks out of the first movement and finale in particular.

The symphony’s forbears include Liszt’s two symphonies alongside Tchaikowsky’s Second and Manfred.  This is partly because of the broad canvas on which the symphony is drawn but also because each movement, without being overtly programmatic, has the feel of a late-romantic symphonic poem.  The opening movement begins with a slow introduction whose style is coincidentally reminiscent of both Sibelius and Rakhmaninov, two other composers with strong links to the Liszt-Tchaikowsky tradition.  It contains not only an initial descending phrase which anticipates the ensuing Allegro vivace and foreshadows the main theme of the finale but also a brief, unsettled theme on the cellos (beginning with a rising semitone followed by a descending tritone) which is the main idea of the Allegro vivace.

The slavic introspection of the opening gives way to the restless, fighting spirit of the Allegro.  Sometimes this reaches an almost Elgarian intensity and quasi-martial triumphalism.  But, in the same way that Polish history is littered with valiant uprisings and violent suppressions, the euphoria is short-lived and the opening Adagio returns.  The return of the Allegro initiates the main body of the movement, in which the recapitulation is prefaced by sombre low chords on the brass (including three sarrusophones) which achieve their full force only in the finale.  The several stages of the coda include a solo appearance of the organ, fulfilling a similar transcendental function to its counterpart in Tchaikowsky’s Manfred Symphony, although unexpectedly not at the culmination of the whole work but of the first movement.

The Andante con moto also has a dark, lyrical tone (the theme emerging from bass clarinet into the clarinet is characteristic), although the fevered yearning of the first movement is now more elegiac.  Paderewski’s skillful exploitation of the sometimes elusive 9/8 metre allows the surging music to ebb and flow compellingly (again, Rachmaninoff is called to mind, as in his slightly later symphonic poem From the Isle of the Dead).

In previous pieces, Paderewski’s music had often referred to Polish folk traditions, including the mazurka and krakowiak.  The finale of the Symphony has a more indirect citation,but one which in symbolic terms was infinitely more significant.  Out of the initial flourishes, snatches of the main theme start to appear.  It assumes fuller form, after some four minutes, on the oboe and then the clarinet.  Its descending stepwise motif, hinted at in the first movement, is prefaced by a little rising upbeat, but its character is so ubiquitous that non-Poles would be forgiven for not recognising its significance.  In fact, it is a subtly veiled reworking of the opening two bars of the Polish national anthem, Jeszcze Polska nie zginęła, here in duple metre rather than the original’s triple-time mazurka.  As a rallying cry, it is subdued, but its all-pervasive qualities are highly effective.  Even so, it is bittersweet.  On the one hand it was a source of encouragement to Polish listeners; on the other, its unavoidable disguise was a signal of powerlessness in the face of continuing national subjugation.

Yet the movement is resolutely upbeat and has time early on for a brief allusion to the krakowiak dance.  Battle is joined with the forces of evil, personified by the low brass chords heard in the opening Allegro vivace.  There is also the sound of the tonitruon, Paderewski’s own version of the thunder sheet.  The substantial development section is  brought to a halt by growling strings, low wind chords and percussion.

The peace and sweetness of the ensuing Andantino ma non troppo deny the brute force of these chords, and the music moves on through a military march (again incorporating the motif from the Polish national anthem) to a second island of tranquillity.  This is a prelude to the reappearance, on cor anglais, of the main theme from the first movement.  Both ideas are then combined as the finale gathers pace for the recapitulation.  An almost Wagnerian exultation fills the final minutes as the coda races away to a victorious conclusion.

© 1998 Adrian Thomas


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