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Henryk MELCER (1859-1928)
Trio for piano, violin and cello in G minor, Op. 2 [41:39]
Sonata for piano and violin in G major [29:06]
Dumka for violin and piano [3:47]
Natalya Zubko (piano); Joanna Okoń (violin); Anna Wróbel (cello)
rec. 30 May, 23-24 June 2014, Concert Hall of Music School nr 1, Warsaw, Poland

‘Leading Label Promoting Polish Music & Musicians’ is how Acte Préalable describes itself. Certainly from its extensive catalogue, it features a lot of music either by composers known only within Poland, or less well-known repertoire by names somewhat more familiar to the wider CD-buying public.

Henryk Melcer is perhaps better known more for his piano concertos which, along with the Paderewski, are two of the less unfamiliar Polish works in the genre. While, as a talented pianist, the piano was the main instrument to feature in his output, he also contributed to chamber music. Although it would be fair to expect to find at least one CD in the Acte Préalable catalogue devoted to his chamber works, it does seem rather unusual to find that there are, in fact, now two CDs devoted to exactly the same works, though presented in a different order on disc, and played by different artists. The first (AP0111) was the subject of a review here in April 2006, actually committed to CD two years earlier as a ‘world premiere recording’. It still appears in the catalogue and is available to purchase at the time of writing.

It would therefore be sensible to think that this new recording (AP0333) adds a great deal more to the previous version. However, apart from appearing to shift the focus, by track placement, from the Violin Sonata in 2006 to the Piano Trio in 2014 – and by changing the CD title from ‘Chamber Works’ to a specific listing of each work – the duplication seems a tad unnecessary in such esoteric repertoire. The music, while pleasant enough to listen to, appears hardly earth-shattering or having any especially valuable message to get across.

Both the Piano Trio in G minor and the Violin Sonata in G major are relatively substantial four-movement works, lasting over 41 minutes and almost 30 minutes respectively. The Piano Trio is an early work, written in 1892-94, and was awarded the Grand Prix of the A. Rubinstein Composition Contest in Berlin in 1895. It is conventional in structure, with the outer two movements in sonata-allegro form, and the inner two in a basic ternary (ABA) pattern. The sleeve-notes – which appear in their original Polish, with English and Ukrainian translations – are somewhat convoluted at times. Sentences like: ‘As regards the motivic construction of particular movements of the Trio, we notice that they appear in contrast to each other, and there are no integrational tendencies, “fashionable” at the end of the nineteenth century’, do tend to proliferate. The idea could certainly have been expressed far more succinctly. In fact this and numerous other sentences rather suggest that the work is more than the sum of its parts. True it’s easy on the ear, but suffers on a number of occasions from the apparent need to keep repeating a melodic phrase which, after some time, does tend to pall. All in all it also makes the work over-long, even if the slow movement is lyrical enough and the Trio to some degree attractive.

The 1907 Violin Sonata is a somewhat later work and makes some use of cyclic form. Harmonically, too, it shows advances over the earlier Piano Trio. Melcer introduces elements of the Polish oberek – similar to the mazurka, but not as dependent on the characteristic dotted rhythms of the latter, nor accenting the second or third beat. The ensuing scherzo is folk-like and holds the listener’s attention. This it achieves both through its rhythmic niceties, as well as its bouts of chromaticism and slightly unexpected chord juxtapositions – the use of bare fifths in the trio section also adds to the rustic nature. The slow movement is nicely lyrical and builds into an effective climax, before finally subsiding. The lively finale rounds the work off, again with some quirky harmonic progressions and canonic writing along the way. It does have some entertaining moments, if not novel in themselves. After its first performance, its editors claimed that ‘It may be the best Polish sonata’. Whether that is true or not, is a matter of personal taste, judgement and sample-size, when compared with other mainstream European countries’ output.

The final track, the Dumka for violin and piano – which is the separating track between the two larger works on the 2006 CD – is, in fact, not by Melcer. It is fact a paraphrase of Stanisław Moniuszko’s song, ‘Przychodź Miły (Come, My Dearest), but set at a rather slower tempo. Again the sleeve-note rather bigs up Melcer’s working here, which is really quite simple, though admittedly befitting Moniuszko’s original material.

Even without the luxury of Acte Préalable’s 2006 CD (AP0111) to hand, it is still easy to recommend this earlier CD over the present one (AP0333). Merely having the online facility to sample the opening of each track, the intonation, attack and musicality of the Warsaw Trio on AP0111 seems streets ahead of this new 2014 issue particularly where the violin is concerned. This seems even more puzzling when AP0111 is actually advertised at the end of the sleeve-notes of AP0333, where a selection of Melcer’s works on the label is provided. Collectors often like to have more than one version of a major mainstream work, but here, two CDs of the same three works by Henryk Melcer is overkill.

Philip R Buttall