These are marvelous pieces. In the 19th century the history of Poland was one of partition, occupation, and war. As a result, after Chopin and perhaps Moniusko (a composer of very tuneful operas) very few Polish composers were able to achieve an international profile until after the Second World War. Most Polish musicians who became famous into the 20th century were performers such as Jan Paderewski. Juliusz Zarębski (1854-1885), the more remarkable of these two gifted composers, was in fact a famous international concert pianist. He was trained in Vienna and became a close friend of Franz Liszt in Rome. Most of his known music is in the virtuoso salon style, but his piano quintet is a stunning piece—extremely sophisticated, full of color and invention. He was 31 when he died—a big loss to serious music. Wladyslaw Źèleński (1857-1921) occupied a series of prominent teaching posts, ending as head of the conservatory in Krakow. Most of Źèleński’s music was lost or destroyed, so the curiosity created by his irresistible piano quartet is likely to go unsatisfied.
Zarębski’s piano quintet in G minor is full of big gestures and harmonic surprises. He has a way of modulating to distant keys, using harmonic side slips and rhythmic displacements to keep his superb tunes alive and constantly arresting. There is a grand, rather challenging first movement, where his handling of piano versus the strings is highly inventive but always retains a convincing balance. The adagio begins mysteriously, one is uncertain of key or meter until a gorgeous theme in B-flat major floats from the cello. This is varied using a highly chromatic harmonic vocabulary that along with the delicate piano writing seems to presage Impressionism. The Scherzo is full of harmonic changes and quirky rhythmic articulations. Its memorable theme is varied breathlessly, to the point of a short but deftly pointed fugue. The finale starts with the same theme as the Scherzo but goes on to become forcefully argued, where little by little, referential harmonic relationships and melodic cells used in the earlier movements take a bow, providing a wonderful sense of wholeness and logic to a sometimes quirky piece.
Źèleński’s quartet is a more conventional but highly accomplished work. It has the stamp of Brahms both in its procedures and in its sonority—ripe piano chords under strings often in unison. Still, Źèleński’s harmony also has its unusual features, particularly a suggestion of “folk harmony” in a sharpened fourth, which adds piquancy to his delectable tunes. There is an especially gorgeous melody that opens the Schumannesque second movement (a “Romanza”), varied imaginatively and subject to a delayed and very haunting recapitulation. The last two movements (the third an “Intermezzo”) have a dance feel—a lyrical mazurka—and the finale, worked out with stern intellect, is kept alive by a tarantella rhythm.
The playing by the Szymanowski Quartet (Andrej Bielow is the extra violinist in the Zarębski) and the witty, supportive, but when required, brilliant pianism of Jonathan Plowright, is superb and captured in very rich sound.
A CD no one who loves chamber music will want to be without.