• Zarębski & Żeleński (Hyperion, 2012)


Zarębski and Żeleński
Hyperion CDA 67905 (2012)
Jonathan Plowright and Szymanowski Quartet

• Żeleński: Piano Quartet in C minor, op.61 (n.d.)
• Zarębski: Piano Quintet in G minor, op.34 (1885)



It is a striking feature of nineteenth-century Polish music – Chopin apart – that even today it is barely known, let alone acknowledged, outside its native country.  After Chopin’s death in 1849, Stanisław Moniuszko was the major figure in Poland through the 1850s and 60s, largely because of his operas.  It was up to composer-virtuosos, developing Chopin’s example, to carry the spirit and the letter of Polish music abroad.  The violinist Henryk Wieniawski took on this role until his death in 1880.  His mantle was subsequently assumed by the pianist Ignacy Jan Paderewski at the end of that decade.

Two paths were open to composers.  That of the composer-virtuoso was chosen by Juliusz Zarębski (1854-1885) and his all-too-brief career flourished between those of Wieniawski and Paderewski.  The other option was to remain at home and develop a career as a composer and teacher.  That was the path followed by Władysław Żeleński (1837-1921).

Most Polish music composed in the second half of the nineteenth century is still rarely performed.  It never established an international profile that could match the developing repertoire and styles that were evolving elsewhere in Europe.  This was in large part because Poland no longer existed as a nation state.  It had been partitioned by Russia, Prussia and Austria, and the occupying powers had ulterior motives for not allowing too much national sentiment or cultural independence to develop.  It was almost impossible to establish robust institutions, aside from opera, or to move musical life beyond the provincial, and it was not until 1901 that the first full-time symphony orchestra, the Warsaw Philharmonic, was founded.  The music of Zarębski (pronounced Zarempski) and Żeleński (Zhelainski) was a victim of this history.  Yet in recent years, some of their music has resurfaced and there is a realisation that perhaps, after all, Poland was not quite the stagnant musical backwater that was once thought.

In 1885, when Zarębski composed his Piano Quintet in G minor op.34, he was famous more as a performer than as a composer.  He had been born in Zytomierz, a small town in what is now Ukraine.  His talent as a pianist soon became apparent, and he was sent to study in Vienna (where he graduated aged 18) and St Petersburg.  In 1874 he went to Rome, where he soon became Liszt’s favourite pupil.  His virtuosity took him across Europe, from Constantinople to London, and in 1878 he gained celebrity status at the Paris Exhibition for his performances on a double keyboard piano.  This invention by the Mangeot brothers was a particular challenge, because the upper keyboard had the bass register to the right and the treble to the left.  Zarębski left no trace of his expertise on this bizarre contraption.

Much of his music for solo piano consists of virtuosic salon music, often with roots in Polish dance traditions.  His cycle of five pieces Roses and Thorns (1883), on the other hand, is remarkably prescient of the harmonic liberation of French music just a few years later.  Zarębski was evidently far more than just a showman.  He was a thoughtful, imaginative and potentially major compositional figure.  The Piano Quintet is eloquent witness to what might have been had he not died of tuberculosis aged just 31.

Since it was first published (in 1931, 46 years after its composition), the Piano Quintet has been regarded within Poland as a masterpiece.  It is hoped that it will now be recognised more widely outside Poland for its originality and stature that match and even surpass better-known piano quintets by better-known composers.  It shows a remarkably fresh ear for symphonic thinking, motivic development and sheer melodic invention.

It is immediately striking that the piano is cast as primus inter pares rather than as a vehicle for virtuosity.  Zarębski also understands, where other composers have sometimes struggled, how to balance the piano and four strings.  More often than not, the piano plays a supporting role to the intense lyricism of the strings.  The main theme of the first movement quickly takes wing in a manner that becomes characteristic of Zarębski’s intuitive thematic development, where a little motif takes the melody beyond its initial idea.  Another typical feature is his application of this free-flowing principle to larger sections.  A subsidiary idea, playfully toying with the 4/4 time signature, also becomes lyrical and modulates to E flat major, not a standard key relationship for a second subject.

The gently melancholic lilting of the second subject soon gives way to a gathering of expressive power, before an extended codetta leads to the central development.  Here, Zarębski shows his tonal boldness by moving the main theme through a range of distant keys without ever settling.  Even the reflective musing on the main theme by the cello seems keen to avoid confirming the key outright, so it is not surprising that when C sharp minor is finally affirmed it rapidly subsides onto the home key a tritone away for the abbreviated recapitulation.  Within six bars, in a masterstroke of concision, Zarębski switches from the main to the second theme and the momentum rapidly develops towards the first of two climaxes.  A brief return to the main theme leads a headlong coda.

The metrical displacement that featured briefly in the first movement recurs at the start of the second.  The downbeat is not initially where it sounds, and the tonality is ‘off-key’ too, aiding the mysterious atmosphere of the muted string response to the piano’s bass rhythm.  The theme, when it comes, is in B flat major, though its resonance and chromatic colouring give it an intensity that might rather be associated with a minor key.  It is soon on the move tonally and develops into an expressive interplay among the string players.  A second section, in a bright G major, opens with a rare solo spot for the piano, edging chromatically downwards in a way that Chopin might have recognised.  The central section that follows demonstrates Zarębski’s concern with delicacy as much as lyricism, and this provides a telling foil for the increasingly impassioned recapitulation of the main theme.  The movement ends with a surprise return of the enigmatic introduction (after, not before the recapitulation) and a final glimpse of the main theme.

A virtuoso touch is brought to the exuberant Scherzo, which sets off in C minor as an almost jokey galop in 6/8.  A new idea, in 2/4, also contrasts in key: G flat major on its first appearance, G major on its second.  What then follows is unexpected: a fugal treatment of this theme and a substantial espressivo section before a brief return of the two themes to conclude the movement.  Once more, Zarębski has ignored standard thematic-structural conventions.  He does it again, to stunning effect, immediately after the third movement ends.

By starting the Finale with the main theme from the Scherzo, Zarębski also makes explicit what has been hinted at earlier: the motivic ties between movements.  This cyclic integration, characteristic of the age and possibly learned from his teacher Liszt, is especially subtle in Zarębski’s hands.  It is only as the Finale progresses that he makes an overt point of tying the work together in this way, and it seems totally natural, never self-conscious.

After this unusual introduction, the movement settles into a folk-like theme in G major, its innocent gait soon developing into something more rumbustious.  A gentler musing, with running semiquaver accompaniment on the piano, leads to the first major recollection, of the work’s opening theme.  From this point on, Zarębski meshes old and new, combining the lyrical and the exuberant with symphonic panache and crowning the coda with a majestic statement of the quintet’s first theme.


In appearance and character, Żeleński the man could hardly have been more different.  Where Zarębski, with his shock of hair and electric presence, was every bit the performer in the public’s eyes, Żeleński was reserved and contained, a figure who preferred to contribute through his passion for music education.  He was born near Kraków, in the Austrian sector of partitioned Poland, although he lived long enough to see the country reunited as an independent country in 1918.  He was broadly educated, with a doctorate in philosophy from Prague University.  After teaching at the Institute of Music in Warsaw, he returned to Kraków in 1881 and went on to be Director of the Conservatory there until his death.  Although from historical accounts it is clear that he composed across all genres, much of his music has since been lost and most of that which survives cannot be dated.

Żeleński’s Piano Quartet in C minor, op.61, is one such work.  In tone, it shares the romantic outlook of Zarębski’s quintet and of another Polish piano quartet, by Zygmunt Noskowski (1846-1909).  These three works share a yearning lyricism and passionate momentum that owes something to Mendelssohn and Schumann as well as Brahms, yet there is also a Slavic element that sets them apart from these composers’ works for piano and strings.  Nowhere is this more apparent than in Żeleński’s first movement.  The opening idea, with its sharpened fourth, has a folk-like tone, although it is more colouristic than substantive.  Even so, the sharpened fourth appears again in the third movement, Intermezzo, and it is embedded in some of the piano writing in the Finale.

The first movement is indicative of Żeleński’s ability to mould high lyricism with a strong sense of momentum.  The piano plays a key role, while the string trio is often used in unison for maximum expressivity.  The second theme is especially eloquent.  Żeleński repeats the exposition, before pursuing a development of shifting tonalities and dramatic contrasts.  Most subtly and seamlessly, he ushers in the recapitulation by starting it partway through the first theme.  As in the coda of the first movement of Zarębski’s quintet, the coda’s forward drive is interrupted for a last moment of lyrical reflection.  There is an unusual diminuendo on the final open-fifth chord.

The Romanza in A flat that follows is a song without words, initiated by the cello.  Its wistful tone gives way to a central idea played by the string trio, its searching semiquavers leading to an impasto-like texture that ranges from troubled to stormy.  As this subsides, the opening theme floats in, molto tranquillo, although the recapitulation proper comes a little later.  Żeleński treats this as an opportunity for further variation and drawing together of the movement’s themes.

Although the third movement in G minor is called Intermezzo, its roots lie in the mazurka, with its first-beat rhythm and second-beat punctuation.  Żeleński’s take on this Polish dance is quirky.  The movement begins off-key and off-beat and the air is one of whimsy rather than regular foot-stamping.  A singing second idea in B flat interrupts the mazurka briefly.  There are two contrasting episodes: dark string murmurings in E flat major, brought to order by the piano, and a scampering idea in G major, which also reappears to round off the movement.

The Allegro appassionato has all the hallmarks of a classic sonata finale.  At heart it is a tarantella, surging forward even though there are lyrical temptations put in its way.  The second subject, played by the piano in octaves, is a perky idea, sounding rather like a fugue subject.  It in turn gives way to the high-flown lyricism familiar from earlier in the quartet. After the second subject is indeed treated to a brief fugato at the end of the development, Żeleński, as in the first movement, reintroduces the main theme, part-way through.  A brief coda brings the quartet to a rousing end with a final motivic hint in the piano of its very first theme.

© 2012 Adrian Thomas


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