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The art of recollecting

The art of recollecting The art of recollecting

The Fryderyk Chopin Institute has released a recording of forgotten piano concertos by Lessel and Dobrzyński as performed during the festival Chopin and his Europe by Howard Shelley, conducting Sinfonia Varsovia from the piano. This British pianist has a wealth of experience in bringing forgotten works back to life, and although he plays on a contemporary piano, he is fully aware of the rules of rhetoric and articulation to which pianists adhered at the beginning of the nineteenth century. He might confidently be called the right person in the right place.

Franciszek Lessel (1780–1838) disappeared almost completely from the history of Polish music, totally eclipsed by the glory of Mozart and Beethoven, and also by the charm of Ogiński. And yet in the orchestral exposition of the first movement of his Concerto in C major, the frequent returns to the main key or its dominant and the adherence – obstinate at times – to a single harmonic function are offset by a wonderful piano part: sparkling and virtuosic (the composer wants the Allegro to be brillant), but also admirable in its refined polyphony and its modern-sounding textures. This music presages the romanticism of Mendelssohn and Chopin.

The second movement of the Concerto is an excellent addition to the canon of the epoch in which it was written – it is an operatic scene with an orchestra that forges theatrical moods and a lyrical, singing piano part dialoguing with it. In the Rondo finale, the refrain, as in the concertos of Beethoven (though not everyone would guess it) and Chopin (as everybody knows), derives from folk music and is a mazur.

Ignacy Feliks Dobrzyński’s Concerto in A flat major may have been neglected for ‘society’ reasons. Dobrzyński wrote this composition before he became a pupil of Elsner and a classmate of Chopin at the Main School of Music. In many of its passages, and also in its textures, this work in some way anticipates the concertos of Chopin. The dramatic section in the second movement certainly inspired Chopin’s F minor Concerto to the same degree as Moscheles’s G minor Concerto and the fourteen-year-old Mendelssohn’s D minor Concerto. Of course, Dobrzyński cannot compare with Chopin in respect to the inventiveness of textural solutions; although he does observe Hummel quite brilliantly and adapts his ideas in an original way, Chopin goes much further and obtains wonderful effects with devices that are simpler for the fingers.

Dobrzyński is also no match for Chopin in terms of the wealth and beauty of his melodies – both the principal and the counterpointing lines – but he is still no one’s epigone and is not lacking in ideas. He begins this work in an atypical way, with a dialogue between the cellos and the wind instruments, designs the development section of the first movement in a most interesting way and in the second movement introduces a dramatic orchestral accompaniment similar in character to Schubert’s Erlkönig.

Howard Shelley is a virtuoso who amazes one with the lightness of his tone, the timbral shades he obtains and the clarity of his rhythmic figures. In his rendition, the polyphonies of the piano part in Lessel’s Concerto are sparkling and striking, and they carry the dramatic expression. The beautiful shaping of every motif lends the themes – which might be accused of naivety – grace, charm and a most elegant beauty. He manages to bring out the originality of the modulations in the development of the first movement and to show the brillant style (and so a style post-Haydn and post-Mozart) of passages in the second movement and the proximity of an early Romantic courtly mazur and a somewhat boisterously intoned waltz.

In Dobrzyński’s Concerto, Howard Shelley delights us with his crystal-clear tone, convincingly demonstrating – in the first movement development – the passage from the brillant of Hummel to that of Chopin. He imparts to the orchestral ritornels not a dramatic, but a triumphant character, suited to the key of the work. The Sinfonia Varsovia listens to him carefully and – as one may surmise – understands him perfectly.

So this performance, meticulously recorded by Lech Dudzik and Gabriela Blicharz, fulfils the essential requirements for these two works to return to concert programmes. There is one ‘but’, however: the Lessel Concerto was prepared from the PWM materials, and so in the orchestration by Kazimierz Sikorski; the Dobrzyński, as we read in the booklet, was prepared from a score ‘reconstructed and edited’ by Kazimierz Rozbicki – several cuts have been made in the Finale in relation to the score at my own disposal (this work was similarly recorded by Jerzy Sterczyński with the Rzeszów Philharmonic Orchestra under Adam Natanek; Selene, 1994). Would the music stand up as well in the original versions? Perhaps the time has come to verify these arrangements and record both works on historical instruments? We would be richer for the experience, and if it were as artistically successful as this NIFC recording then it would certainly benefit the music.

Kacper Miklaszewski
Ruch Muzyczny

29th of June 2012