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Polish 19th century orchestral music

If you are a typical classical music lover you may well ask: what the hell is this guy talking about? Polish 19th century orchestral music? Is he serious? Surely, no such thing exists!

Well, first of all, stop calling me Shirley. And secondly: it is true that Polish 19th century orchestral music is not generally known outside of Poland but over here some of it is the mainstay of regular concert repertoire.

So who were Poland’s most prominent 19th century orchestral composers? In answer to that question I would like to quote a very interesting concert program. The concert took place on November 5th 1901. Unless you’re very well versed in the history of Polish culture that date should mean absolutely nothing to you. But it is an important date because 1901 is the year when the Warsaw Philharmonic was set up, and November 5th of that year is the day when the very first concert was given at that new venue.

Here’s is the repertoire performed at that, obiously quite longish, concert:

  1. Władysław Żeleński Żyj pieśni! (cantata)
  2. Zygmunt Stojowski Symphony in D Minor
  3. Stanisław Moniuszko Bajka (aka Conte d’hiver or The Fairytale or Winter’s Tale) concert overture
  4. Fryderyk Chopin Piano Concerto in E Minor
  5. Zygmunt Noskowski Step (The Steppe)
  6. Fryderyk Chopin – various pieces for solo piano.

The performers were the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra (duh…) conducted by Emil Młynarski (artistic director of the new institution but also a composer – Nigel Kennedy recently recorded his Violin Concerto, BTW) and Ignacy Jan Paderewski who (obviously) played on the piano. There were many encores and the concert wasn’t over until midnight!

The reason I quoted this program is that four of the composers performed then remain until today at the strict top of the list of Polish 19th century orchestral music composers. And if you add to that Chopin as a piano composer, and Juliusz Zarębski (who wasn’t performed on that specific occasion) as chamber music composer – you will have a complete list of Poland’s most prominent 19th century composers, no matter what genre you’re interested in.

Of these six (Chopin, Moniuszko, Noskowski, Stojowski, Zarębski, Żeleński) only one is really well known outside Poland (Chopin). Two others have recently attracted a little more interest abroad thanks to new recordings (EMI released Moniuszko’s most important opera The Haunted Manor, Hyperion – a CD of Stojowski’s Piano Concertos followed by one of his solo piano music) but it seems to have waned very quickly. Though perhaps not completely. Last year Gramophone featured a quite enthusiastic review of a new DVD of Moniuszko’s Halka so perhaps “the father of Polish opera” still has some future ahead of him…

Noskowski, Zarębski and Żeleński remain virtual non-entities. A CD containing (among others) the most important pieces by Noskowski and Żeleński garnered a very favorable review on MusicWeb International [edit: and in the American Record Guide too! – try reaching it through Google, if you can’t see the entire review] but that’s not exactly a sign of popular acclaim. Juliusz Zarębski, who is considered the composer of the best Polish chamber piece ever (his Piano Quintet), is practically unknown outside Poland.

But then, recordings don’t exactly abound (Chopin excepted). There are about 7 separate CD releases of Zarębski’s Quintet (I’ll list the ones I know by pianists: 1. Władysław Szpilman, 2. Jerzy Witkowski, 3. Waldemar Malicki, 4. Szabolcs Esztenyi, 5. Paweł Kowalski, 6. Krzysztof Jabłoński, 7. Wojciech Świtała) – but save for one (the one with Malicki), they are all out of print (the Polish Radio sometimes also airs a recording with Eugeniusz Knapik and the Silesian String Quartet). Since you’re not exactly spoiled for choice, the only available Quintet recording is the one to go for. 😉 And if you’d like to expand, try to find the CPO disc with his piano cycle Les Roses et les Épines – you will be surprised to hear how in many places it sounds very much like Debussy, though still retaining Zarębski’s very characteristic idiom (Debussy was 21 when it was written and hadn’t even composed L’ Enfant prodigue yet).

And to think that Zarębski actually seems to be the most often recorded of the five who remain after substracting Chopin! There are seemingly more CDs with Moniuszko’s music but 1. most of them are very difficult to find, 2. if you compare his catalogue of works with the number of recordings available you will realize there are precious little of them! Since this post was supposed to be about orchestral music, let’s not depart from the subject once again – I’ll leave his operas, songs, religious music for another occassion. To get to know Moniuszko the splendid orchestrator, simply pick up the CPO disc of overtures under Satanowski (it also contains Bajka).

If you want Noskowski, there’s nothing in print and available except for the afore mentioned CD Accord disc that got the good review at MusicWeb (or you can try to seek out Rowicki’s recording, either on the old Olympia CD, or the more recent Polskie Nagrania re-release).

There are no commercial recordings of Stojowski’s symphonic music, none – you will have to settle either for the Hyperion Piano Concertos or one of the many chamber music discs released in recent years.

Żeleński won’t spoil you for choice either. Except for the CD Accord disc, there’s only the difficult-to-find Rowicki recording. Otherwise, you’ll have to settle for his songs, organ preludes, piano works or chamber pieces (his Piano Quartet is excellent but the Olympia disc is long out of print).

Somewhere out there, there’s also a fantastic disc containing Moniuszko’s Bajka and Noskowski’s Step conducted by the legendary Polish conductor Grzegorz Fitelberg – if you ever see it, grab it at once!

[I’ll try to update this post with cover pics later.]

[Edit: the cover pics are now in a separate post here.]

  1. maciek
    2 September 2008 at 23:48

    Added link to American Record Guide (glowing) review of the Nowak “Polish Symphonic Music of the 19th Century” disc.

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