• Różycki: The Romantic Piano Concerto 67 (Hyperion, 2016)




Różycki: The Romantic Piano Concerto 67
Hyperion CDA 68066
Jonathan Plowright, BBC Scottish SO, cond. Łukasz Borowicz

• Ballade in G Major op.18 (1904)
• Piano Concerto no.1 op.43 (1918)
• Piano Concerto no.2 (1941)



The roster of composers born in the first half of the 1880s reads like a roll-call of major figures of twentieth-century music: Béla Bartók (born 1881), Igor Stravinsky and Zoltán Kodály (1882), Anton Webern (1883) and Alban Berg (1885).  Among other, lesser-known contemporaries are two from Poland: Karol Szymanowski (1882–1937) and Ludomir Różycki (1883–1953; some sources give his birth date as 1884).  It has taken until recent years for Szymanowski to be accorded a prominent place in his generation’s pantheon.  Różycki, on the other hand, remains an obscure figure whose music is rarely acknowledged outside Poland.

Różycki’s father Aleksander was a pianist and composer who taught at the Warsaw Music Institute, where Ludomir studied with the composer Zygmunt Noskowski, who also taught Szymanowski and the conductor Grzegorz Fitelberg.  Together with another composer, Apolinary Szeluto, these three young musicians formed a collective called Młoda Polska w muzyce (‘Young Poland in Music’).  At their inaugural concert on 6 February 1906 Różycki was represented by his first symphonic poem, Bolesław Śmiały (‘Bolesław the Bold’).

In 1907 Różycki completed his further studies with Engelbert Humperdinck in Berlin and a year later became conductor at the opera in Lwów (today’s L’viv, in Ukraine).  He spent 1912–18 in Western Europe, returned briefly to Warsaw in 1919–20 to conduct at the Grand Theatre, and then devoted the rest of his life to composing and teaching, briefly at the Warsaw Music Academy at the start of the 1930s, and from 1945 at the State Higher School of Music in Katowice.

After Poland became independent at the end of the First World War, Różycki’s music was acclaimed at home but rarely heard abroad, although his ballet Apollo i dziewczyna (‘Apollo and the Maiden’, 1937) was premiered at the Paris International Exhibition that year.  In the face of a new wave of avant-garde Polish composers who emerged in the late 1950s and 1960s, he largely became a historical figure.

Różycki is best known for his symphonic poems, operas and ballets, many of which draw on Polish history and culture.  His list of works begins and ends with programmatic orchestral music: the symphonic scherzo Stańczyk (1903) and the now-forgotten symphonic poem Warszawa wyzwolona (1950), which was written at the height of communist socialist realism to celebrate Warsaw’s liberation by Soviet forces at the end of the Second World War. Stańczyk, one of his most popular works, is based on Jan Matejko’s painting (1862) of the Renaissance court jester, who is slumped in thought, brooding on the state of the nation.  The music is by turns heroic and dance-like, incorporating the mazurka and kujawiak and recalling the musical idiom of Różycki’s older compatriot Ignacy Jan Paderewski.

Among the symphonic poems is the sombre Anhelli (1909), composed to celebrate the centenary of the birth of Juliusz Słowacki, one of Poland’s most significant writers.  Słowacki’s poem ‘Anhelli’ is a visceral account of the self-destructive fate of Polish exiles in Siberia.  Różycki’s music is dark and intense, closer now to the Straussian idiom of the Polish master of the symphonic poem Mieczysław Karłowicz, who had died earlier that same year.  Other programmatic works include the ethereal orchestral prelude Mona Lisa Gioconda (1911), inspired by the novel The Romance of Leonardo da Vinci by the Russian symbolist writer Dmitry Merezhovsky.

The stage works are also wide-ranging in their topics, successful in their day but now regarded – perhaps unfairly – as too conservative in style.  They include the so-called ‘fantastic’ operas Meduza (1911) and the Puccini-indebted Eros i Psyche (1916), which transposes the Greek myth into five historical periods and locations, from ancient Arcadia, through medieval Spain and ending in contemporary Europe.  Notorious historical subjects followed in the shape of Casanova (1922) and Beatrix Cenci (1926), and there was also an operetta Lili chce śpiewać (‘Lili wants to sing’, 1932).  Różycki’s most popular stage work in Poland and elsewhere is the exuberant ballet on the Polish legend about the Faustian Pan Twardowski (‘Mr Twardowski’, 1920), with its distinctly Tchaikovskian echoes.

Unsurprisingly, the non-programmatic pieces in Różycki’s output share many stylistic traits with the symphonic poems and stage works.  Aside from songs, there is music for piano and for chamber forces, including the string quartet of 1915–16 (recorded on Hyperion CDA67684).  Although there are no symphonies, Różycki did write a violin concerto (1944) as well as the three works for piano and orchestra that are issued for the first time together on this recording.

Różycki composed the Ballade in G major, Op 18, in his final year of study at the Music Institute.  He dedicated it to the Polish pianist and teacher Jerzy Lalewicz, eight years his senior.  The Ballade has many of the hallmarks of the traditional musical education in Warsaw at that time.  Its outline structure conforms to a sonata allegro, with two subject areas in which the second conventionally appears in the dominant (D major) in the exposition and then in the tonic in the recapitulation.  Thematic motifs are diatonic and the second theme is four-square.  Yet Różycki introduces many features – especially flexible tempo changes – that divert attention away from such scaffolding, giving the impression of an extempore, almost winsome narrative.  The work’s musical idiom, like that of Stańczyk written the previous year, is reminiscent of Paderewski, but without the folk references.

The main theme is intimated at the start of the introduction by the descending flute, followed by a livelier rhythmic idea played by low trumpet.  After a solo flourish, the piano states these two ideas in reverse order.  The flute motif is now much more prominent and is marked Grandioso.  It soon vanishes, however, and is replaced by a subsidiary idea that winds its way towards the second subject.  As it does so, little complementary phrases appear in the orchestra, a feature of Różycki’s ear for instrumental colour.  He dwells on the lyrical second subject, eventually draping it in pianistic arpeggios and trills.

The development is the most dynamic section, at one point with the trumpet elaborating on its initial motif.  The recapitulation, while still following the basic trajectory of the exposition, is fuller in texture and more forward expressively.  After a momentary relaxation, it launches once more into the main theme, which seems destined to provide a climactic conclusion.  Yet again, Różycki surprises the listener, side-stepping for a moment to the key of G flat major, a semitone below the tonic, before landing gently on the chord of C (a hard trick to pull off).  The music subsides onto the home chord of G major and closes unobtrusively, as if in the hands of the subtlest storyteller.

By the time of the Piano Concerto No 1 in G minor, Op 43 (1918), Różycki had composed several symphonic poems and three operas.  He put their often emotionally wrought world to one side for this, his first large-scale abstract orchestral work.  He dedicated it to Woldemar Runge, who at that point was the Intendant of the theatres in Breslau (current Wrocław), where Eros i Psyche had been premiered the previous year.

The discursive quality of the Ballade finds its way into the concerto too.  The motivic definition of the introspective orchestral opening, despite its long-term significance, is soon overwhelmed by pianistic bravura.  The second subject is reached quite quickly, introduced by a rising pentatonic scale on the black notes of the piano and a haunting little melody that is related to the opening idea.  The music now swoons and surges until it dissolves into delicate pianistic figuration around a new variant of the main musical thread.  The extended development is forthright, both piano and orchestra brandishing their motifs and sustaining its state of excitement to the point where the opening motif returns briefly in the piano, con tutta forza, imitated by the horns, but not in the tonic key.  Różycki now does something unexpected.  He jumps straight to the rising pentatonic scale leading to the second subject, and from here onwards, rather than continuing the developmental approach, he simply quotes the rest of the exposition almost exactly, with only the occasional tweak.

Różycki shows his full late-romantic colours in the slow movement, which gives every appearance of embarking on a classic ternary ‘song without words’.  Instead, Różycki goes where his melodic instinct leads him, which here is a veiled central idea.  As this putative middle section draws to a close, once more he confounds expectations with the barest of allusions to the initial theme, followed by reminiscences of the middle section that has only just ended.  The finale introduces a new sense of momentum, tonally quixotic and alternately rumbustious and fiery.  It is effectively a scampering gigue in 6/8 (or is it a tarantella?), and this frames a substantial central portion in 3/4.  Marked a little misleadingly Allegro giocoso, this is a sweeping reappraisal of the first movement’s opening idea, which develops into a particularly eloquent melody.  After a return to the gigue, the concerto is rounded off in triumphant mood by the cyclic theme in its latest guise.

Musical life in Warsaw during World War II was difficult, to say the least.  Composers responded to the trauma in different ways.  Witold Lutosławski chose diversion, in his effervescent Variations on a Theme of Paganini (1941). Andrzej Panufnik and Grażyna Bacewicz decided to confront their situation in their Tragic Overture (1942) and Overture (1943) respectively.  Różycki reflected both the destructive and the optimistic, while maintaining his late-nineteenth-century musical language.  Not only did he compose the ‘dramatic fragment’ for orchestra Pietà – na zgliszczach Warszawy (‘Pietà – on the ruins of Warsaw’, 1940–43) but also the Second Piano Concerto, which embraces both approaches.

Unusually, the Piano Concerto No 2 is cast in only two movements.  Różycki was fond of beginning pieces with dark foreboding (Bolesław ŚmiałyAnhelli) but the opening of the Second Piano Concerto is striking, especially in its slow 3/2 metre.  Three times the theme is presented, each with a different instrumentation: low strings, wind, and solo piano, the last two capped by the strings.  The shifting expressive impact of these statements may or may not have been intended to evoke the experience of living in wartime Warsaw.  They introduce a brittle Marziale, still anchored in 3/2.  The agitation gradually calms to prepare for a new string theme in 4/4.

This new theme has special significance (I am grateful to Łukasz Borowicz for pointing me in this direction).  The theme’s rocking motif – marked con sentiment – is from one of Różycki’s own songs, Laleczki moje (‘My little dolls’), which he dedicated to the Polish soprano Aniela Szlemińska.  It became popular in Poland in the 1930s and appears to be the sole survivor from his operetta Lili wants to sing.  Its text is rather soppy: ‘My little dolls and childhood dreams I remember today […] Little Bebi and big Bobi are in love like us.’  Różycki smoothes out the syncopations of the original but the music soon marshals its energy and leads to a Maestoso theme.  This is also related to the song but different to the extent that it feels like another allusion (the patriotic Mazurka of 3 May comes to mind, as does the solemn Polonaise from Pan Twardowski, although this march is in 4/4).  The movement exudes patriotism, but typically ends in mystery, the chord of C finally ridding itself of the grinding dissonance of B flats and D flats.

Why Różycki drew on the opening phrases of his song for the second subject is far from clear.  Perhaps he thought its sweet innocence would bring added poignancy in the circumstances.  Perhaps he saw the quotation as a veiled act of defiance, like that of his teacher Noskowski, who did something similar with the Dąbrowski March at the end of his Symphony No 2 ‘Elegiac’ (1879) during an earlier period of occupation.  This observation is not far-fetched, because the sombre theme that opens the concerto also relates to ‘My little dolls’, this time to the melody of the chorus, while the song’s rhythmic syncopation – discarded in the first movement – characterises the krakowiak drive of the finale.  Here, Różycki recaptures the rhythmic flair and instrumental sparkle of Pan Twardowski.  Piano and orchestra whirl forwards, with occasional moments of reflection and thematic ideas that, once again, have the character of recollections.  Różycki’s – and by implication Poland’s – wartime spirit is irrepressible.

© 2016 Adrian Thomas


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