• Żeleński & Zarzycki (Hyperion, 2013)


Żeleński and Zarzycki
Hyperion CDA 67958 (2013)
Jonathan Plowright, BBC Scottish SO, cond. Łukasz Borowicz

• Zarzycki: Grande Polonaise (1859-60)
• Zarzycki: Piano Concerto (1859-60)
• Żeleński: Piano Concerto (1903)


Aside from Chopin’s two examples from 1829–30, the Polish piano concerto in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries remains a largely unfamiliar repertoire, even in Poland. Most were never published, and the few that were usually appeared only in piano reductions. Among the exceptions was the piano concerto (1889) by Ignacy Jan Paderewski, which has been recorded a number of times (it was included on the first volume of Hyperion’s Romantic Piano Concerto series). The piano concertos by Sigismond Stojowski (1890 and 1910) and Henryk Melcer-Szczawiński (1892–4 and 1898) are more recent rediscoveries also available in this series. This new recording breaks further ground by introducing three works for piano and orchestra that have gathered dust on library shelves for over a century.

The name of Aleksander Zarzycki (1834–1895) is barely known today and his music even less so. He played a significant role in the development of musical education in Warsaw, becoming the first director of the Warsaw Music Society in 1871 and later moving to the Music Institute in 1879, where among the teachers whom he engaged was Paderewski. He was also a fine pianist, having studied in Berlin in the mid-1850s before moving in 1857 to Paris (where Chopin had died just eight years earlier) to pursue his career as a composer. Three years into his studies, in the Salle Herz, he united both talents when he premiered two new compositions: the Grande Polonaise and Piano Concerto in A flat major.

One of Chopin’s legacies, both inside and outside Poland, was to have encapsulated the country’s spirit in his dance forms. In addition to many such works for solo piano, each of his piano concertos has a dance finale, and he also composed self-standing pieces for piano and orchestra such as the Fantasy on Polish Airs, Rondo à la krakowiak and Andante spianato and Grande Polonaise. Zarzycki’s Grande Polonaise (1859–60) follows the same path. The score is dedicated to the pianist and conductor Hans von Bülow, whom Zarzycki probably first met in Berlin.

Zarzycki’s Grande Polonaise Op 7, marked Allegro non troppo, con maesta, follows the genre’s traditional spirit and format: a stately dance, ternary in design, intended to arouse pride in the heart of a nation that had lost its statehood (Poland was partitioned by Austria, Prussia and Russia throughout the nineteenth century). After the soloist’s opening flourish, a variant of the polonaise’s characteristic fanfare rhythm is played by trumpets, and Zarzycki subsequently highlights a kicking syncopation reminiscent of another Polish dance, the krakowiak.

Zarzycki’s Grande Polonaise is not just a demonstration of patriotic bravado; there are moments of quieter reflection, even in the outer sections (with some nice touches from oboe and flute). In common with the dances written by other Polish composers of the time, Zarzycki’s style is simpler than is found in many of Chopin’s more familiar examples. His melodic ideas are instinctively lyrical, bordering on the sentimental. It is almost as if the tune of the central section has stepped off the stage of an operetta, a new and popular entertainment in Paris at the time (Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld had been premiered in Paris in 1858). True to form, however, the opening swagger returns and, with a couple of new side-steps, the piece is brought to a sparkling conclusion.

Zarzycki’s Piano Concerto in A flat major, Op 17, also composed in 1859–60, is dedicated to the Russian pianist Nikolai Rubinstein. Its history and construction are something of a mystery. There are just two movements: an Andante in A flat followed by an Allegro non troppo in F minor, changing to F major near the end. It does not seem credible that an opening sonata allegro had not been planned, even if the premiere in 1860 presented just these two movements. Yet no hint on the matter was given on the work’s publication in 1881 (this apparently is a revised version, though the extent and nature of the revision is unknown).

By opening with what would usually be a central slow movement, the concerto begins, as if in mid-sentence, with Zarzycki in lyrical mode. This is a more intense lyricism than found in the Grande Polonaise, with rhetorical elements in which the soloist and orchestra are equal partners. The second movement, in sonata-form, could hardly present a greater contrast. Its jaunty nature is partly down to its roots in the krakowiak, the dance form originating from around the city of Kraków that syncopates the first beat of its 2/4 metre. After the finale’s opening flourishes, its first theme (presented twice by the piano and a third time, extended, by the orchestra) is elusive, at least on the surface. Its stop-start character—emphasizing tonic and dominant chords—seems unlikely material. It immediately develops in the brillant manner familiar from Chopin, Hummel and Mendelssohn. This mood continues as the key switches to D major and the soloist explores a new vein of keyboard virtuosity. The second main subject, disarming in its directness, is introduced by the piano. The music soon reverts to the earlier jauntiness, developing into a galop as Zarzycki plays with both themes prior to the full recapitulation and a headlong coda.

Władysław Żeleński (1837–1921) is slightly better known than Zarzycki. His ‘characteristic overture’ W Tatrach Op 27 (‘In the Tatras’, 1868–70) has remained in print since 1879 and maintains a place in the repertoire of Polish orchestras. Like Zarzycki, Żeleński was intimately involved in music education. After succeeding Zarzycki as director of the Warsaw Music Institute in 1878, he moved to Kraków in 1881 and seven years later he helped to establish the Conservatory of the city’s Music Society, serving as its director until his death thirty-three years later.

Relatively few of Żeleński’s works survive, and most are undated. The Piano Concerto in E flat major, op. 60, was written in 1903 and dedicated to the young Ignacy Friedman, who gave the premiere the following year. Although quite conservative in tone, it shows evidence of stylistic developments over the four decades since Zarzycki’s concerto. Its musical language especially shows that Żeleński was aware of developments in chromatic and concertante writing of the kind that had become popular in the music of composers such as Franck, Grieg, Liszt, Saint-Saëns and Tchaikovsky.

The opening Allegro maestoso announces the sprightly if initially reserved main theme almost immediately. In fact the theme has traces of the dotted rhythm of a Polish mazurka, and it soon develops adventurously, shifting key frequently. The piano part is technically demanding, yet it is thematically driven rather than being merely a vehicle for display. A subsidiary theme emerges momentarily on the piano, before the first subject winds down. The molto cantabile second theme, played by the soloist against a low held note in the orchestra, has a notably Slavonic lyricism (more hints of Tchaikovsky). This merges with a sweeping development which brings Żeleński’s penchant for thematic counterpoint to the fore. Such is the tonal and thematic mobility that, despite partial recapitulations of all but the main theme, the impression is one of urgent development. This climaxes with a majestic cadenza before plunging into the home key and the return of the opening theme. There eventually ensues a two-part coda, each with its expressive surprise. The theme is first presented Più vivace, and then the music is subtly transformed into a brief but irresistible waltz.

The Thème varié that follows consists of a theme in G minor and five variations. The 2/4 theme combines the air of an eighteenth-century dance with a dark Slavonic turn in the melody. The first variation, led by the piano, is a fuller version, while the second, marked Allegretto vivace, sparkles with triplet rhythms. For the third variation, Quasi adagio, Żeleński gives the theme a sombre tone, deepening the exchanges between soloist and orchestra. The following variation, Tempo di marcia sostenuto, surrounds the theme with plentiful filigree work for the piano before the orchestra takes over in stentorian fashion. The final variation, Andante ma non troppo lento, ushers in G major and a full romantic treatment of the theme.

The passing suggestions of the krakowiak found in the second movement come bursting out in the folk-like exuberance of the rondo finale. The theme, however, is the same as that of the preceding movement (now in E flat major). The difference here is not just the tempo and accompaniment but also the syncopation of the new four-bar phrase that follows. Yet this answering phrase is less stable than it appears and the pianist starts to lead the music a merry dance.

A contrasting episode marked poco moderato introduces interesting chordal patterns, but the theme remains and, with the aid of a subsidiary idea, it is not long before the music surges forward again. The rondo theme and home tonality return twice more and continue to develop in unexpected and lively ways, with new counterpoints and exhilarating pianism. The final statement of the rondo theme is in the coda, Allegro vivace quasi presto. After the dancing coda of the first movement, it is fitting that the finale also ends this way, with a tarantella at the start of which Żeleński, true to his nature, fits in one last piece of counterpoint: a motif from the first movement.

© 2013 Adrian Thomas


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