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Review: Polish Romantic Composers

Quick, quick – name a Polish composer.

Now name a Polish composer who isn’t Chopin.

If you remembered Szymanowski, well done – have a gold star. But it should be a lot easier than this – particularly given the quality and quantity of classical music that the Poles have produced. Unfortunately, not enough of it makes it through into the West, so finding good recordings of Polish works can sometimes be quite difficult. I’ve been exploring a number of Polish Romantic composers recently, and some of their works are astonishing. Suffice to say, suddenly Chopin no longer seems to stand in a vacuum.

The Fryderyk Chopin Institute in Warsaw have been producing a number of their own recordings of Polish music in a valiant bid to enlighten us non-Poles about their heritage. Mostly, these have been CDs covering the complete works of Chopin (on both contemporary and period instruments). But they’ve also thrown up a number of lesser known works and composers. Their recording of Nowakowski’s Piano Quintet and Krogulski’s Piano Octet (with the ever dependable Nelson Goerner on the piano) has been one of those CDs that has snuck up quietly on me. The first couple of times I listened to it, I thought ‘This is nice’ and not much more. But after a few hearings, it has started to hit that sweet spot between freshness and familiarity, where you can truly hear the beauty of the music. Chopinesque moments are given an instrumental depth that Chopin himself never quite mastered. I love it.

The Institute has also produced two separate recordings of Lessel and Dobrzyński’s piano concertos (one on contemporary, one on period instruments), with Howard Shelley as the conductor and soloist in both. I personally prefer the additional colour that the period instruments bring to the performances (plus the period instrument recording has the added bonus of a Dobrzyński overture which isn’t on the other recording); but that’s just personal taste, and they are both very good. I was slightly less enamoured by Tobias Koch’s recital of Polish piano miniatures, but I suspect that’s mainly because I like my piano music with slightly more meat on it – and the performances themselves are well executed. My favourite discovery through the Institute, however, has to be Noskawski’s 1895 Symphonic Poem ‘The Steppe’. It appears as an eighteen minute filler on a disc dedicated to Chopin’s F minor piano concerto (played by the Orchestre de Champs Elysees under Philippe Herreweghe) – but honestly, just buy the disc for this piece. Despite its late nineteenth century date, the music would have sounded perfectly at home in the 1850s, and it manages to deliver on both rough-hewn robustness, and moments of sublime beauty. You really can feel the Steppe in it.

Moving away from the Institute – it’s now painfully clear that I need to find some good recordings of Karol Kurpiński’s operas. I have an old, butchered, second-hand recording of his ‘Henry VI at the Hunt’, and it shows remarkably promise. I bought the recording (Musica Antiqua Polonica on the Olympic label, if you can find it) for the concise but charming Clarinet Concerto, which inhabits a Hummel-esque world somewhere between Mozart and Chopin. But it was as an opera composer that Kurpiński made his name, and from the snatches of his music that I’ve heard he was a very good one. Try imagining what Chopin as an opera composer might sound like, and you begin to get the idea.

The aptly named Szymanowski Quartet, meanwhile, have delivered a fascinating disc on the Hyperion label that covers the Piano Quartet of Zelenski and the Piano Quintet of Zarebski. The latter in particular is a must-hear work, with its own distinctive voice. This is no Chopin knock-off – this is a composer exploring interesting and unexpected directions in Romantic music. I believe that Hyperion have also released a recording of Zelenski’s Piano Concerto in their Romantic Piano Concertos series, but I haven’t managed to get my hands on that yet. However, I have enjoyed their recent recording of Moszkowski’s early piano concerto (under the conductor Vladimir Kiradjiev) – a monumental work, brimming with ideas, that clocks in at nearly an hour. If you like that, Moszkowski’s later piano concerto is also available on the same label, coupled with Paderewski’s piano concerto (Piers Lane playing under the conductor Jerzy Maksymiuk) – I have listened to this recording too many times to hear it properly now, but I have got a lot of enjoyment out of it over the years. Moszkowski’s Etudes are also worth a listen – although so far I have only been able to find them on YouTube; again they manage to combine robustness with beauty, a trait that seems to be common among many Polish composers. I need to hear more Moszkowski.

Moving into a slightly later sound world – a sound world that would eventually lead to Szymanowski – there’s the composer Mieczyslaw Karlowicz. Karlowicz is one of those great tragedies of classical music – a stellar talent that died too young. Naxos and the conductor Anton Wit have done a highly recommended series of recordings covering his six Symphonic Poems, which make up the core body of his work. These dark, often brooding pieces, are reminiscent of what Sibelius was trying to do in Finland. But they have their own voice, and are definitely worth trying out. My favourite of Karlowicz’s works, however, has to be his violin concerto (also available from Naxos and Wit – although the sometimes hit-and-miss Nigel Kennedy has also produced a very good recording). It is, I think, a more accessible piece than the Symphonic Poems, and it delivers on all the fronts you’d expect a truly great violin concerto to deliver upon: it has its skirls of romantic emotion, whilst never losing a dramatic, smouldering depth.

Finally, there is another composer who died all too young – the man who was briefly seen as Chopin’s successor, Antoni Stolpe. Camerata Vistula on the Pro Musica Camerata label have recorded his chamber music, and for one so young it’s astonishingly accomplished. I particularly love the two movements of a Piano Sextet that he wrote. The Allegro moderato especially has a Mendelssohnian playfulness, that nonetheless manages to draw upon darker sources.

It’s such a shame that he died before he reached his full potential. Otherwise, Chopin might not have been the first name that you think of when somebody says ‘Polish music’.


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