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Ignacy Jan PADEREWSKI (1860-1941)
Sarabande in B minor, Op. 14 No. 2 (1897) [3:14]
Intermezzo polacco in C minor, Op. 14 No. 5 (before1886) [3:48]
Cracovienne fantastique in B major, Op. 14 No. 6 (1885-1887) [3:23]
Burlesque in F major, Op. 14 No. 4 (1885-1887) [3:35]
Dans le désert. Toccata in E flat major, Op. 15 (1886-1888) [9:06]
Melody in G flat major, Op. 16 No. 2 (1885) [4:29]
Caprice à la Scarlatti in G major, Op. 14 No. 3 (1887) [2:34]
Nocturne in B flat major, Op. 16 No. 4 (1890-1892) [4:14]
Minuet in G major, Op. 14 No. 1 (1885-1887) [4:21]
Sonata in E flat minor, Op. 21 (1903) [30:24]
Kevin Kenner (piano)
rec. 2017, Witold Lutosławski Concert Hall of Polish Radio, Warsaw
FRYDERYK CHOPIN INSTITUTE NIFCCD057 [70:10]

Ignacy Jan Paderewski was born in rural Poland, where his father was an overseer for several large estates. Paderewski showed an interest in music at an early age. He started to compose and to study piano with local teachers, before entering the conservatory in Warsaw. There his progress on the piano was not rapid, and his teacher even advised him to study another instrument. Paderewski tried the flute, clarinet, bassoon, horn, and finally the trombone, which he played in the conservatory orchestra – but the piano still remained his main interest. After graduation, he taught for a few years before moving to Berlin to continue his studies, but once again he was advised that his talent was insufficient to have a concert career. Undaunted, he went to Vienna to study with Theodor Leschetizky, but even here he found little encouragement, mainly because his teacher felt that it was already too late for the 24-year-old pianist to develop a dependable technique. But Paderewski persisted, practising prodigiously, and finally his highly-successful debut in Paris launched a career that made him the best-known and best-paid pianist of his time for the next 50 years.

He made his first American tour in 1891 and then returned regularly until the outbreak of World War I. He developed a tremendous following and amassed a fortune estimated at some ten million dollars at the time. During World War I Paderewski proved to be a Polish nationalist in a wider sense. Concerned with the plight of Polish victims of the war, he raised large sums of money for them through benefit concerts, and became a friend of President Woodrow Wilson. Returning to Poland as soon as the war was over, Paderewski was greeted as a national hero, and he served as prime minister in 1919. He resigned from political activities in 1922 and resumed giving concerts until 1939, just two years before his death in New York.

Early in his career Paderewski wrote a Minuet in pseudo-Mozart style, which became unbelievably popular. People who did not usually go to concerts attended just to hear him play it. Many an aspiring pianist since then will no doubt have come across it at some juncture, and, of course, it is included on the present CD. It has not been chosen to open or close the disc, but comes at the end of some nine shorter character pieces, before the substantial three-movement Sonata in E flat minor rounds things off. The Fryderyk Chopin Institute clearly, and quite rightly, wants to present things in true musical perspective, as they would similarly seek to with Chopin’s equally-well-travelled Fantaisie-Impromptu, Op. 66.

Paderewski’s compositions are dominated by works for solo piano, something hardly unexpected in the Romantic period, when the instrument and pianist-composers were in their heyday. As for Paderewski, the largest group of piano works involve miniatures, written mainly in the years 1885-1887, that is, during the initial part of his concert career. They make up the Op. 14 and Op. 16 sets. The latter set consists of works dated up to the mid-1890s, which, while originally published separately, were subsequently issued under the collective title, Miscellanea. Série de morceaux, Op. 16. The Op. 14 set became known as the Humoresques de concert, and saw a slight renaissance in the use of traditional movements from earlier dance suites, as witnessed by the CD’s opening track. The Sarabande in B minor, while exhibiting the rhythmic and stylistic qualities of the Baroque form, and a nod in the general direction of Bach, is still clearly imbued with Romantic harmony. It is a charming little miniature in its own right, with an especially effective short coda that ends in the major. The Intermezzo polacco that follows begins life as a fairly typical Polish mazurka, but soon wells in virtuosity, before leading into a gentle waltz-like section in the major key. The opening mazurka returns, with some charming right-hand filigree passage-work, yet another most endearing miniature, which would make a nice little concert number, or slightly extended encore.

The Cracovienne fantastique features another well-tried Polish dance form that Chopin had used before. As with the Intermezzo polacco, the writing is quite technically demanding at times, and equally as effective, with a particularly striking close. The Burlesque is cast in the humorous style of fellow-countryman Moritz Moszkowski, with a contrastingly gentler middle section. As before, a confident technique, neat articulation and delicacy of touch are all very much the order of the day here. The next piece – Dans le desert, Toccata in E flat major – is the longest single piece on the CD, except for each of the three movements of the Sonata in E flat minor respectively, and what a superb piece of writing it is, too. It has the essential elements of a toccata, with some rapid repeated notes, but the jewel in its crown, so to speak – or jewels, to be more precise – is a truly expansive romantic melody that appears twice amid the otherwise some otherwise quite aggressive writing. As the most informative and erudite sleeve-notes (in Polish and English) comment, it seems such a travesty that the composer is far better known for some of the miniatures, and especially the Minuet, rather than this most imposingly-impressive piece of writing, which is on an altogether higher artistic plane.

The ensuing Melody in G flat major was originally entitled Romance, which gives some idea of its musical content – sentimental, yet not overdone, tugging gently at the heart-strings just a little bit more as it reaches its subdued close. The Caprice à la Scarlatti is another effective piece of pastiche where the original Italian composer’s presence can definitely be felt, but so, too, can that of Paderewski. Technically challenging, but again well worth the effort to learn as an ideal encore. The Nocturne in B flat major became an important piece in the composer’s concert repertoire, and again shows off Paderewski’s natural feeling for a fine bel canto line and attractive melody, but without any of the melodic ornamentation so evident in Chopin’s works in the genre. The famous – or indeed infamous – Minuet in G closes the set of miniatures. Deliberately written in the style of Mozart, it was intended as a gift for two acquaintances who were great admirers of the Austrian’s music, and apparently were unaware that the Minuet was a Paderewski hoax, despite the piano-writing which does rather give the game away. Paderewski was by no means pleased at the incredible popularity of his Minuet, which he described as ‘lousy’, and ‘my bête noire’.

The remainder of the CD is given over to the Sonata in E flat minor, which, by complete comparison, the composer felt to be one of his most important and best works. He started working on it in 1887, but it was not completed until 1903. At just over thirty minutes, it is certainly an imposing work, where virtuosity of the highest order is evident in the outer Allegro con fuoco and Allegro vivace respectively. There is a Beethovenian serenity in the Andante ma non troppo slow movement, and, to give the finale some extra street-cred – and sense of erudition – Paderewski includes a fugue along the way. Its closing bars exhibit some immensely impressive pianism, and the shadow of Rachmaninov, whose first Piano Sonata was completed just five years later, is clearly felt on occasions. Original critical opinion suggested that Paderewski’s Sonata was not quite up to the standard of sonatas, for example, by Tchaikovsky, Grieg or Balakirev, but that it was felt to occupy first place among the works of Polish composers after Chopin, at least until the three works in the genre by Karol Szymanowski, the first of which appeared in 1905.

There could scarcely be a better advocate for the Sonata, than award-winning American pianist Kevin Kenner, who, in 1990, was won the second-place prize at the International Chopin Competition in Warsaw (no first-place prize was given), the International Terence Judd Award in London, and third prize in Moscow’s Tchaikovsky International Competition, and had already won awards at the Van Cliburn and Gina Bachauer International Competitions. Kenner performed on Paderewski’s own piano, a Steinway Model D, 233Y, dating from 1925, and now in Warsaw’s National Museum. The performance has been immaculate throughout, with great power and great virtuosity when called for, but also despatching the smaller, and often less-challenging, miniatures with great aplomb. For their part, too, Polish Radio has captured to perfection the distinctive piano sound enhanced by the warm acoustic of the capital’s Witold Lutosławski Concert Hall.

But despite Kenner’s Herculean playing in the Sonata, where he just does not put a foot wrong anywhere, despite the sheer number of notes on the page and the technical demands of the writing, he cannot really make a case for a substantial reappraisal. Despite its true merit and undeniably exciting moments, especially in the finale, the piece needs more than this alone to put it up there among the very best at the time.

This, then, is a really most enjoyable CD of piano playing of the highest order, and definitely makes a strong case that there is more to Paderewski’s piano music than Minuet in G. While the Sonata does not quite hit the spot, some other engaging pieces are recorded here. The Toccata in E flat minor, for example, really does deserve to be far better known, and would be a more fitting heritage of the composer’s style of writing than the ubiquitous Minuet. But as, for example, with Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, Ravel’s Boléro, or Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1, this will sometimes be the case. Camille Saint-Saëns, who had helped Paderewski from time to time, was instrumental in encouraging the Pole to play his then newly-composed Piano Concerto in A minor in public – probably Paderewski’s only other work to stand the test of time, albeit rather tenuously. But even the far more eminent French composer had his own ‘Minuet in G’ cross to bear, in the shape of his ever-popular Carnival of the Animals. He forbade its performance outside a close circle of friends, until it was eventually published in the year after his death.

Philip R Buttall

 

 



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