Classical CD Reviews

ZELENSKI: Piano Concerto in E-flat Major; ZARZYCKI: Piano Concerto in A-flat Major; Grande Polonaise – Jonathan Plowright, p./ BBC Scottish Sym./ Lukasz Borowicz – Hyperion

Volume 59 of this series, “The Romantic Piano Concerto,” explores the Polish contribution to the bravura tradition.

Published on April 12, 2013

ZELENSKI: Piano Concerto in E-flat Major, Op. 60; ZARZYCKI: Piano Concerto in A-flat Major, Op. 7; Grande Polonaise, Op. 7 – Jonathan Plowright, piano/ BBC Scottish Symphony/ Lukasz Borowicz – Hyperion CDA67958, 61:26 [4/9/13] [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ****:

Volume 59 of the ongoing series “The Romantic Piano Concerto” explores the Polish contribution to the bravura tradition, including two works by the infrequent Wladyslaw Zelenski (1837-1921), director of the Warsaw Music Institute and, in Krakow, the Conservatory Music Society. His Concerto in E-flat Major (1903) was dedicated to the legendary Ignaz Friedman, who premiered it in 1904.  As much influenced by Tchaikovsky as by Chopin, the opening Allegro maestoso likes to repeat passages twice, a Schumann legacy, in its relatively conservative progressions. Dotted rhythms mark the primary subject, typical of mazurka-style. The lyrical Molto cantabile theme emanates poignancy, but its salon quality prevents its becoming a sweeping, memorable statement. Zelenski suffers the same penchant for academic polyphony as does Tchaikovsky, which while it extends the development, does not impress us with a capacity for melody. The cadenza soars and plummets impressively, with strong whistles from the high woodwinds and thumps from the bass fiddles when they enter for the recapitulation. The coda subdivides into two parts, first Piu vivace and then into waltz tempo reminiscent of young Richard Strauss.

The second movement presents a Theme varie in G Minor and five variations. Rather in the manner of a 2/4 gavotte, the theme combines an air of the court with a Slavonic color. In its various guises, the main tune suggests a krakowiak that will emerge full-blown in the last movement, Finale-Rondo: Allegro non troppo ma con brio. Of note in the second movement, the Variation 3, Quasi adagio, deepens the emotional affect in a style that echoes both Grieg and Rachmaninov. After a more martial “Variation 4 a la Dohnanyi,” the last takes us into the tonic major, exploiting the interplay of keyboard arpeggios and suspended strings, the full “romantic treatment.”  This last movement opens much in the manner of the Grieg Concerto, having taken the theme of movement two and converted it for folk use in E-flat Major.  Bright and energetic, the music proceeds as a spirited dance with occasional Lisztian flourishes. A dark episode, poco moderato, adds some meditation; then some Polish galloping horses bring back the merry dance in new configuration and counterpoint. Quite festive, the music cavorts and whirls with a lithe spontaneity that proves charming. The coda, a point at which Zelenski likes to exhibit his academic capacities, indulges in polyphonic and virtuosic writing, hustling forward into a colorful tarantella of some power.

We might know the name Aleksander Zarzycki (1834-1895) from just one encore piece that violinist David Oistrakh used to tout at recitals. The A-flat Major Piano Concerto (1860) is dedicated to Russian pianist-pedagogue Nicholas Rubinstein. In two movements, opening slowly, it consists of an Andante (in A-flat) and a succeeding krakowiak, 2/4, in F Minor that modulates into F Major at the conclusion. Grand and rhetorical at first, the music indicates some lush Romantic formulas, conservative but eminently pretty. A dark turn at the end of the first movement heralds the brilliant rush and pop of the second movement, Allegro non troppo, gives us some big block chords reminiscent of the R. Strauss Burleske. When the music enters into D Major, the mood lightens into the glittery style of Mendelssohn and Hummel, rather vacuous but digitally impressive. The second subject, lyrical and sentimental, could be construed as by Grieg. The whirling flourishes equate to moments in Chopin and Wieniawski, supported by long-held notes in the French horn. The pompous orchestral tuttis and cascading filigree of the piano imitate Mendelssohn but add little of a significant emotional dimension. The last pages invoke another spirited gallop peppered with brilliant horn and high-wind interjections, the keyboard writing breathless and boldly theatrical.

Zarzycki’s Grande Polonaise (1860) takes its cue from Chopin’s Opp. 14 and 22, the piece’s having been dedicated to Hans von Bulow in Berlin. A stately dance lifts our national hearts with requisite pride, the trumpets’ asserting Polish aristocracy of spirit. The string version of the polonaise has something of Tchaikovsky’s Evgeny Onegin about it. The ensuing syncopes belong to the krakowiak; then, the music assumes a quieter, reflective mode, eminently lyrical. The trumpets and strings, in the manner of Chopin’s Op. 22, reintroduce the swagger of the polonaise, nicely colored by the oboe and the flute. The last pages, a series of running figures punctuated by swirling orchestral figures and fanfares, achieves a jaunty and waltzy heroism that Chopin might have nodded to in polite homage to himself.

Recorded in Glasgow, 28-29 June 2012, the recording benefits from the lofty ministrations of Simon Eadon, whose ability to capture the Steinway without unduly ping or reverberation makes a stand-out keyboard experience.

—Gary Lemco

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