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)
Recorded between 1-3 December 2006 in Potton Hall, Suffolk
CD No: HYPERION CDA67562 Duration: 80 minutes Reviewed: August 2007
Paderewski Piano Music
Reviewed by Colin Anderson
Born in 1860 in Kurylówka, Poland, Ignacy Jan Paderewski died in New York in 1941 having become an internationally renowned pianist, a composer (famed for Minuet in G) … and, for a short while, between 1919 and 1920, following much activity to help make Poland independent, was both Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of his country.
Paderewski’s Piano Sonata (begun in 1887 and not completed until 1903, possibly due to his demanding tour-schedule) is a three-movement work that, while not especially long (35 minutes here), is rich in expression and incident and is justifiably described as ‘large-scale’. The first movement is a darkly sinewy and tempestuous opener, magnificently laid out and with a tremendous climax. In terms of stylistic references, while the listener may fleetingly think of Brahms and, not unreasonably given the lineage, Chopin, it is Rachmaninov that seems closest to Paderewski’s overall utterance – this is music of power, brooding, melancholy and defiance. The first movement is a superb creation – bold and striking – the second, an Andante, is intimate, generously melodic and Romantic, and the finale is a tour de force of animalistic bravura, hugely exacting on the pianist, but with a fugal middle section that is very closely worked out, almost severe in the context of the whole, before a coda of white-hot intensity harks back to Schumann at his most impassioned.
Jonathan Plowright plays this great piece marvellously and with devotion; the Sonata is a fiendishly difficult work to perform but Plowright has its measure and gives a wonderfully exciting and sensitive performance that is superbly recorded.
The two sets of Variations, each with a concluding Fugue, are quite different from one another. The slighter work, Opus 11, is from the mid-1880s and invests the charming Theme to a number of characterisations, mostly brilliant ones, and recalls Brahms’s treatment of Paganini. Paderewski subjects his tune to dazzle and dance – but not emptiness – and revels in his own pianistic virtuosity with concision and skill while some darker clouds leaven the high spirits. The rather serene Fugue is lucidly worked through if a slightly perfunctory way to conclude a crowd-pleasing work.
Lasting half-an-hour the Opus 23 Variations (like the Sonata also from 1893 and in E flat minor) is double the length of Opus 11. The Theme this time is rather pessimistic and Paderewski’s commentaries, while assorted (from imposing to playful via sombre), are altogether more probing and subjective. It’s an absorbing work, written with serious intent, and the most elusive music here to which one wants to return to discover more.
It helps therefore to have a pianist who clearly believes in the music who has studied it with appreciation and insight. Jonathan Plowright fits the bill admirably – and he has the technical wherewithal to do it justice. He unfolds the extended Fugue of Opus 23 imperiously; here the astringency of Paderewski’s conception perfectly caps what has gone before.
This is fascinating music impressively performed, recorded and annotated – and cannot be recommended too highly.