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Ludomir R”ŻYCKI (1883-1953)
Piano Quintet in C Minor Op.35 (1913) [42:05]
Ignacy FRIEDMAN (1882-1948)
Piano Quintet in C Minor (1918) [37:38]
Jonathan Plowright (piano)
Szymanowski Quartet
rec. 8-10 October, 2015, Potton Hall, Dunwich, Suffolk, UK.
HYPERION CDA68124 [79:45]

It wasn’t long ago that Hyperion gave us the Piano Quartet of Zelenski and the masterful Piano Quintet of Zarebski (review). Now, from the same artists, here is another disc of unknown chamber music by two more Polish composers. Růżycki completed a wide variety of works, including ballets, operas, several symphonic poems, two piano concertos and a small body of chamber music – including the present piano quintet. By contrast Friedman, who was more of a travelling virtuoso, eschewed large-scale works and his piano quintet is his most substantial piece. It is therefore slightly surprising that the latter should be, to my ear, the more involving and interesting listening experience. Both quintets are in three movements and are in C Minor but, apart from that, they inhabit rather different worlds.

Růżycki’s quintet will not take the musical world by storm. Belying the image of the naked maiden clinging on to a fearsome horse on the CD cover, it has a brief, declamatory opening (Lento) and then settles down to meditate (Allegro moderato?) for 14 minutes or so with predominantly unison strings, in a style not far from the rather earthbound late piano quintets of Faurť. There is some swaggering development but this leads to a ruminative central section with a dipping motif. After a return to mild turbulence the movement ends tranquilly. The second movement is a funereal Adagio that also lasts about 14 minutes. This has an initial theme that is introduced by the cello - followed by a second subject with a rocking theme – also introduced by the cello. The movement remains very slow, apart from a brief Andante section. The impassioned ending involves striding octaves in unison strings - followed by the piano accompanying tremolando, col legno strings - until it all dies away.

The final Allegro giocoso movement also starts with the cello and we get a stuttering scherzando that rapidly reverts to a reflective central section. I am afraid that I have to go back to my familiar refrain about composers who simply do not provide sufficient variety to maintain interest in their music. This is very much the case here and a hymn-like theme, that could have been briefly rousing, is reduced to long stretches of plodding Andante that predominate until a final, more vigorous section falls away (yet again) to a slow ending. Once again the movement is pretty well 14 minutes long. The whole work is perfectly pleasant as background music but rather insipid and, as an active listening experience, it leaves a lot to be desired. In particular it is, in my humble opinion, about 50% too long for its material. One wonders what the inspiration for it was. At any rate I expect it to disappear back to oblivion. Fortunately, the kissing of musical frogs occasionally turns up a handsome prince/beautiful princess (take your pick!) and the Friedman quintet is a different matter.

The cascading bravado opening of the first movement Allegro maestoso immediately grabs the listener (well, this listener anyway) before it morphs into a waltz-like second subject that could be Korngold or even Richard Strauss. Throughout the movement there is an interesting variety of contrasting textures. After a development full of suspense we get a wistful return of the second subject, a vigorous climax based on the opening rhythms and a further brief return to the second subject before the movement ends, powerfully.

The second movement (Larghetto) is actually a theme and variations but the place of the “theme” is taken by three short and not particularly striking motifs. No matter – there is no shortage of variety here either. There follow six separate variations and a fugue (unfortunately not separately tracked). The first could almost be related to the Aquarium section of Saint-SaŽns’ Carnival of the Animals. After a slow second variation with col legno strings the short third mazurka-like variation consists of quiet splutterings that lead to a somewhat sinister fourth variation, a minuet-like fifth and a swaying sixth. The final section starts lively and initially continues powerfully. It is described as a fugue in the booklet but I noticed only vaguely fugal musings that gradually build to a climax before dying away to delicate octaves on the piano. Strangely, the dying away is extended in an almost humorous fashion because the piano keeps coming back with valedictory chords before the movement finally finishes.

Only the last movement, Epilogue, strikes me as a bit of a disappointment. It starts with a gentle duple time dancing tune, with what the booklet refers to as “Central European inflections”, which rapidly reverts back to recollections of the two preceding movements and rather runs into the sand before erupting into a vigorous climax and falling away to quiet reminiscence. If this is, then, not a work to challenge the great quintets of Brahms, Schumann and Dvorak it can probably be set alongside the quintet of Zarebski and, perhaps, even that of Korngold.

Quite aside from the variable compositional quality of what is offered here the performances are everything one could wish for. Jonathan Plowright is a splendid pianist who has done much to champion this out-of-the-way Polish repertoire and the Szymanowski Quartet could hardly be bettered. I see that the two violins of the quartet each take a turn at leading but I noticed no particular difference between the ways the two quintets are led. The Potton Hall recording has all the characteristics that make that venue something special for chamber music.

So, a bit of a curate’s frog (!) but I am very pleased to have heard the Friedman work.

Bob Stevenson



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