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POLDOWSKI (Régine WIENIAWSKI) (1879 – 1932) Art Songs
Angelique Zuluaga (soprano)
Gwendolyn Mok (piano: tr. 1-5, 7-26)
Alexander String Quartet (tr. 6)
Ryan Zwahlen (oboe d’amore: tr. 26)
rec. 2016, Skywalker Sound, Marin County, USA
Sung texts enclosed, French texts with English translations
Tracks 1, 2, 4 and 5 are world premiere recordings DELOS DE3538 [65:28]
The pseudonym Poldowski is probably fairly unknown today, even though some of her songs have been recorded. Almost ten years ago I reviewed a disc with soprano Elise Gäbele, which included 27 songs and less than a year ago the excellent Carolyn Sampson chose five songs for her highly recommendable collection “A Verlaine Songbook” (review). The present disc overlaps more or less with Gäbele’s but contains four songs that are world premiere recordings, and generally speaking the level of execution is higher than on the old disc, which probably isn’t available any longer anyway. At least I haven’t been able to track it down.
To put the record straight I had better give some historical and biographical information about the composer. Her father was Henryk Wieniawski (1835 – 1880) the Polish violinist and composer and some of his virtuoso works are still played, not least his violin concertos, of which No. 2 has some claims to be his masterpiece. He settled in Ixelles in Belgium in 1874, having been appointed to the Brussels Conservatory. His daughter Régine was born on 16 May 1879 and less than a year later Henryk died in Moscow, leaving his wife Isabelle Bessie-Hampton alone with her daughter. Isabelle was of a London family and eventually, in 1896, they moved there. Régine studied the piano in Brussels and gave recitals very early but there seems to be very little documentation on her further studies, even though she claimed to have gone to study at the Conservatory. That she was a child prodigy and started composing very early is beyond doubt, however. In 1893, when she was 14, she performed in public two or three of her own compositions.
In London she seems to have pursued her musical training and she also had two songs to texts by Yeats and Tennyson published under the name of Iréne Wieniawska. She had become friendly with Nellie Melba while still in Brussels and meeting the Australian diva again in London she was introduced to Sir Aubrey Dean Paul, whom she married in 1901 and became Lady Dean Paul. When she pursued her dual career as pianist and composer she chose to appear under the pseudonym of Poldowski. As a composer she was successful, not only in the field of songs, but privately she went through several crises of illness, divorce from her husband in 1921 and heavy financial problems. She died from a heart attack on 28 January 1932 after an unsuccessful operation. She had three children, one of whom died at a very early age.
The majority of her songs were settings to French texts and according to her daughter Brenda she always spoke French. Many of the poems she set had already been set by Fauré, Debussy and Ravel and her compositional style shows strong influences from Debussy in particular, but I think it is unfair to call her a mere epigone. Still I am sure many knowledgeable listeners hearing her songs in a blindfold test would think “Debussy” as a likely composer. They are well crafted, harmonically sure-footed though sometimes predictably so, and sometimes they can feel a bit too perfumed and with a melodic sweetness that isn’t too far away from the parlour songs of the day.
The first two songs on this disc belong to that category and they are certainly attractive but a bit impersonal. They were composed in 1900 and her choice of poetry reveals that she had an ear for important poets. Yeats and Tennyson are still respected and sung simply and unaffectedly they have a great deal to offer. The Blake settings and the anonymous To Love are from the other end of her career, published in 1924, and by then she had come a long way to adopt a more modern harmonic language with dissonant harmonies. Narcisse, to a text of her own, is her last published song and here she found a decidedly modern idiom, and one wonders how she would have developed if she had been able to compose more. Her inventive use of the string quartet also points forward. Narcisse is a remarkable composition.
Where she is most at home is however when she tackles the poetry of Paul Verlaine. On this disc we find thirteen settings of him. Several of the poems have been set by colleagues, for instance L’heur exquise which is one of Reynaldo Hahn’s finest songs. But Poldowski’s version is also a gem, exquisitely sung here. Mandoline, best known in Debussy’s setting, is another spirited composition and, honestly, all the Verlaine songs are truly attractive. I have a special affection for Berceuse d’armorique, a poem by Anatole Le Braz. It is so soft, so inward and so beautiful and it is sung with the utmost care and simplicity.
On the last few tracks we get some songs by her colleagues. Debussy’s Pierrot is juxtaposed with Poldowski’s portrait of another commedia dell’arte characters, Colombine, and they are certainly related. Hahn’s En sourdine has long been a favourite with me and Poldowski’s setting of the same poem is much in the same mood. Finally Soir – poem by Albert Samain – set by Louis Aubert and Poldowski. Aubert, today largely forgotten, was a child prodigy who became famous for his beautiful boy treble. He often sang Pie Jesu from Fauré’s Requiem and he became friends with the composer. His setting of the poem is beautiful and Poldowski’s version of with an obbligato oboe d’amore enhancing the plaintive mood of the poem. It is beautifully played Ryan Zwahlen.
Angelique Zuluaga, who also is a noted teacher, has an ideal voice for Poldowski’s songs and she makes the most of the texts as well, without never exaggerating and over-interpreting. The experienced Gwendolyn Mok is an ideal partner and the Alexander String Quartet are excellent in Narcisse.
The recording is first class and the presentation is a model of its kind with an illuminating essay by David Mooney. Lovers of French melodies will be delighted to hear this disc and I urge readers with even just a tiny bit of interest in musical byways to give the disc a try. You will be richly rewarded.
1. Down by the Sally Gardens [1:08]
2. O! Let the Solid Ground [2:53]
3. To Love [1:53]
4. Song [2:17]
5. Reeds of Innocence [1:45]
6. Narcisse [2:32]
7. Sérénade [2:26]
8. L’heure exquise [2:41]
9. Dans une musette [3:50]
10. Mandoline [1:40]
11. Effet de neige [2:38]
12. A Clymène [2:14]
13. Cythère [1:06]
14. Dimanche d’Avril [2:48]
15. Spleen [2:29]
16. Cortège [1:31]
17. Bruxelles [2:48]
18. A Poor Young Shepherd [1:48]
19. Berceuse d’Armorique [3:55]
20. Dansons la gigue [1:35] Claude DEBUSSY (1862 – 1918)
21. Pierrot [1:44] POLDOWSKI
22. Colombine [2:00] Reynaldo HAHN (1874 – 1947)
23. En sourdine [3:23] POLDOWSKI
24. En sourdine [2:53] Louis AUBERT (1877 – 1968)
25. Soir [4:50] POLDOWSKI
26. Soir [4:39]