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Ignacy Jan PADEREWSKI (1860-1941)
Piano Concerto in A minor, Op. 17 (1882-4) [34:13]
Polish Fantasy in G-sharp minor, Op. 19 (1893) [21:27]
Kevin Kenner (piano)
Orchestra of the Podlasie Opera and Philharmonic, Bialystok/Marcin Nałęcz-Niesołowski
rec. Podlasie Opera and Philharmonic Concert Hall, Bialystok, November 2010
DUX 0733 [55:40]

Paderewski was renowned primarily as a piano virtuoso, and his piano concerto, in LP days, was treated as a flashy virtuoso vehicle. It's thus gratifying to see that artists of the digital era are taking the concerto seriously. Native soloists Ewa Kupieć (Koch International) and Janina Fialkowska (Naxos) have provided brilliant, dexterous performances that also take in supple, expressive phrasing. Both soloists receive strong orchestral support: Kupieć from high-octane Frankfurt Radio forces led by Hugh Wolff; Fialkowska from the less polished, but musical and enthusiastic, Polish Radio orchestra under Antoni Wit.
 
The Dux performance strikes me as the most expressive yet. After the imposing unison initial gesture, the phrasing of the opening theme is sensitive and nuanced. The players infuse the movement with a welcome, waltz-like buoyancy, even in tutti. The oboe solo in the central Romanza is movingly played. Nor does Marcin Nałęcz-Niesołowski's concentration on such details come at the cost of projecting the music's structure. Note, for example, his seamlessly marked transition into the Romanza's big recapitulation at 7:23, with high violins singing vibrantly over the piano's resounding chords. Throughout the programme, the orchestra sounds full-bodied and assured, not at all "provincial".
 
If I interpret the billing on Dux's digipak correctly, the Polish word for the piano is fortepian, which may confuse Anglophones. So might Kevin Kenner's initial entry, sensitive but contained in demeanour. The shiny passagework immediately thereafter, however, dispels any notions of a "period" instrument. He's just taking advantage of a full dynamic range to shape the lyrical phrases. His tone expands into forte with impressive resonance, filling out the big moments - in that recapitulation I mentioned, and in the gleaming, resonant chords at 14:38 of the Polish Fantasy. The latter follows several pages of delicate, crisply articulated figurations.
 
In the Polish Fantasy, a showpiece in the mould of Liszt's Hungarian Fantasy, the new performance outclasses that of Fialkowska and Wit, which is well played, but stalls about two-thirds of the way through. Kenner and company here and there, too - the first time after 9:00. Otherwise their heartfelt performance better holds attention. The rhetorical gestures, refreshingly, make their points without bombast. You should note the slashing energy at 4:49. The rhythms are full of life: the dancing theme at 6:52, launched by Kenner and taken up by the orchestra, is nicely buoyant. Kenner's inflection of another dancing theme, at 13:02 is infectious.
 
With lively sound the Dux disc becomes the choice for the concerto and fantasy. Perhaps the orchestra could be a trifle more forward but detail emerges clearly. The only real snag is that Paderewski "completists", if such there be, will also want the colourful, vaguely Russian-inflected Overture, otherwise unavailable, that fills out the Naxos programme. Fortunately, given the low Naxos price, you can have both discs.
 
Stephen Francis Vasta
Stephen Francis Vasta is a New York-based conductor, coach, and journalist.