PADEREWSKI: Piano Sonata in E-flat Minor. Op. 21; Variations and Fugue on an Original Theme in A Minor, Op. 11; Variations and Fugue on an Original Theme in E-flat Minor, Op. 23 – Jonathan Plowright, piano – Hyperion CDA67562, 79:59 [Distrib. by Harmonia mundi] ****:
Passionate and unabashedly nationalistic, pianist Ignacy Jan Paderewski (1860-1941) bestowed a legacy both as creative and recreative artist. His fame rests primarily on his pianistic wizardry, which in its heyday was often likened to that of Franz Liszt. If it is the movie star we seek, we have Moonlight Sonata. Paderewski’s import as a composer still remains ambiguous, certainly not established via the G Major Menuet or the A Minor Piano Concerto.
The large-scale Sonata in E-flat (completed 1903) surely means to rival equally tempestuous, romantic gestures like those of Brahms, Liszt, Schumann, R. Strauss, and Grieg. A definite, contrapuntal flamboyance of spirit moves the opening movement, marked Allegro con fuoco, rife with allusions to Wagner’s Tristan and pulsating with emotional eddies in the home key, B-flat Minor, and G-flat Major. The more demonic episodes smack of the Brahms Op. 2 Sonata and the wilder ecstasies in Liszt. The staggering, repeated chords at the coda either imitate Grieg and MacDowell or inspire them. The second movement lingers in G-flat Major, a vocal moment of some meditation whose harmonies prove wayward in the manner of Medtner and the post-Romantic Russians. A gentle, arpeggiated series of small canons follows, elegant puffery a la Mendelsssohn and hazy Grieg. The Allegro molto finale opens with a quick reference to Chopin’s B Minor Scherzo, Op. 20, then it’s off to the polyphonic races cross-fertilized by the cyclic notions of Liszt and Franck that like to reintroduce materials from the opening movement. A perpetuum mobile in many of its episodes, this movement likes to argue for a colossal, skittering counterpoint, easily traceable to the Brahms of the Handel Variations. The lyrical, melodic tissue–when the flames occasionally die down–might remind some listeners of splashy Rachmaninov.
The first set of 14 variations, those in A Minor on an Original Theme, Op. 11 (1885), takes its cue from Brahms, although its four-square carriage reminds one of La Folia, as set by Liszt for his Spanish Rhapsody. We hear allusions to the Brahms Op. 56 variants on Haydn, along with standard virtuoso glissandi and crossed hands, trills, and a Brahmsian fugue in rather “olden style” of mannered trills and ornaments. The 1903 set of twenty variations and fugue in E-flat Major communicates an entirely darker, more intricate cast, often hinting at the Dies Irae, although Brahms seems its inspiration, but this time the Op. 35 homage to Paganini. The aural image of Debussy comes through, although some would claim MacDowell or Ravel as an influence, as in Variation 15 in F-sharp Minor. The Agitato Variation 13 proves a wild affair, and it leads into an equally pounding set of block chords marked Allegro feroce. The liberation of the trill in Variation 16 owes something to Scriabin, while the following Variation 17 could be a companion to Moszkowski’s Etincelles. The last variation is quite thick, its density sounding a bit like Song of the Volga Boatmen mixed with the Brahms Hungarian Dances. The fugue is quite large, again hinting at the Brahms Handel model, but here modal and angular.
Recorded at Potton Hall, Suffolk, 1-3 December 2006, the sound quite captures Plowright in arresting colors, the engineering a product of the indefatigable Tony Faulkner.