“The Romantic Piano Concerto – Vol. 59” = WŁADYSŁAW ŻELEŃSKI: Piano Concerto in E-flat Major, Op. 60; ALEKSANDER ZARZYCKI: Piano Concerto in A-flat Major, Op. 17; Grande Polonaise in E-flat Major, Op. 7 – Jonathan Plowright, p./ BBC Scottish Sym. Orch./ Łukasz Borowicz – Hyperion CDA67958 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi], 61:26 ****:

This issue of the Romantic Piano Concerto (are we only up to Vol. 59?) brings us two Polish composers who are little known even in their native country. Władysław Żeleński (1837–1921) wrote operas, at least one symphony, chamber and piano music, and over a hundred songs, but apparently little of his output survives today. His Piano Concerto in E-flat is certainly a welcome addition to the catalog of his few works available, mostly from Polish record labels. Written in 1903, the Concerto is richly Romantic, with big, heart-on-sleeve melodies; virtuoso writing for the piano; and colorful orchestral effects provided by a big orchestra, including a sizable percussion section that helps underscore the rollicking folk dance-inspired rondo finale. One unusual feature of this finale is that it’s a major-key version of the G-minor theme on which the variations-form slow movement is based. Shades of Liszt and Franck, whose ideas of thematic transformation and cyclic form are probably behind this choice.

The first movement, marked Allegro maestoso, is, indeed majestic, the stately first theme, with its accent on the second beat, having the feel of a mazurka, just as the syncopated theme of the last movement is based on the livelier krakowiak. Altogether, this is a very attractive work and one of the better offerings I’ve heard lately in this revered series from Hyperion.

Unlike the Żeleński Concerto, which is the work of a veteran composer, Aleksander Zarzycki’s Concerto in A-flat was written and premiered by him soon after he completed his studies in Berlin, shortly after he moved to Paris to further his career as a composer. It seems that many of Zarzycki’s works were published long after they were written, which is true of the Concerto, composed in 1859–60 but published in 1881. The notes to this recording state that “Its history and construction are something of a mystery.” And a mysterious work it is, being in only two movements, the first a typical concerto slow movement in A-flat, the finale a sonata-allegro in F minor/major. Pretty odd, and indeed the Concerto doesn’t really add up to a totally satisfying experience, attractive though the music is, especially the lyrical Andante. As with the Żeleński Concerto, the syncopated finale is influenced by the krakowiak. The themes are certainly nice enough—the dreamy second theme sounds a lot like Chopin—but there’s more than a bit of wheel-spinning in the bridge passages and development section. The piece falls far short of the Żeleński in terms of inspiration.

The Grande Polonaise, also from 1859–60 and premiered at the same concert in Paris, better represents Zarzycki’s talents, but then I guess a Polish composer can’t go wrong writing a polonaise. Still, neither of these works is a match for the Żeleński Concerto, and that really is the chief reason for acquiring this disc.

Jonathan Plowright, who has lent his pianist talents to other volumes in this series, is an exuberant soloist. He seems very much to believe in this music and plays it with sensitivity and verve. He gets fine support from the Scottish band under Polish conductor Łukasz Borowicz. Typically big, bright sound from Hyperion.

—Lee Passarella