Nowowiejski Piano and Cello Concertos Dux1883

Feliks Nowowiejski (1877-1946)
Piano Concerto in D minor, Op 60 ‘Slavic’ (1941)
Cello Concerto, Op 55 (1938)
Jacek Kortus (piano)
Bartosz Koziak (cello)
Poznań Philharmonic Orchestra/Łukasz Borowicz
rec. 2022, Adam Mickiewicz University Auditorium, Poznań, Poland
DUX 1883 [76]

There are a number of reviews of Nowowiejski’s music on this site, many of them on the Polish label Dux, but he has been recorded by Warner too, so he is now of far more than merely local interest. The first recording of these two concertos is, therefore, both exciting – inasmuch as it enriches further his discography – and in some ways frustrating, as the Piano Concerto is heard in an edited version of the score (of which more soon), and the Cello Concerto strikes me as being puzzling.

The piano concerto dates from 1941 and is titled – though apparently not by the composer – the Slavic. It was written at a period when he had left Poznań for Crakow, where he evaded the Nazis. It’s a striking composition opening with a stern opening orchestral introduction, opulently scored, before the piano enters decorously and meditatively, ending in dappled trills, a test case of rhapsodic late-Romanticism. It’s rather a segmental work even if it may be written in a kind of modified sonata form, and those moods vary from lyric to assertive, chordally rousing and orchestrally squally. Piano virtuosity is strongly in evidence.

The Andantino central movement is titled ‘Poetry of Old Cracow’, deftly moving between registers and harmonies, though it struck me that the ‘Poetry’ as such is not necessarily descriptive, but more reflective. These expressive ‘cuts’, almost filmic, capricious, warmly textured or fractious are, again, striking though they seem to me to lack not focus, exactly – that seems to be the composer’s point – but distinctive melodic appeal.

The finale generates a confident maestoso elegance, fluctuating between thick and lissom orchestration, occasionally dissolving into dreamlike conjunctions of colours and textures. The peroration is boldly extrovert with lower brass, as well as high winds, widening the sonic reach as the pianist awaits his turn to drive through to a brilliant, if noisily brilliant, propulsive end.

Shortly after he composed the concerto Nowowiekjski suffered a haemorrhage that partially paralysed him and effectively brought his compositional life to an end.

The edited version used is that of the composer’s son, Kazimierz – or Casimir as his father referred to him on the written introduction to the score which is reprinted on the cover of this disc. You’ll also see he refers to himself as ‘Felix’ not Feliks. This edition – and I am wholly indebted to conductor Łukasz Borowicz’s booklet notes – includes ‘numerous abridgements’. These have clearly compressed the concerto and therefore made it more accessible to the listener, an opinion that pianist Jacek Kortus must share. I’m not sure if these abridgements have added to a sense of the work’s disjunction, its sectionalism, or whether that is part of the work’s schema.

Back in 1938 he’d written a Cello Concerto, a rare inter-war Polish example of the genre, and one crafted in so-called ‘Slavic Modernism’. The solo cello emerges from a thoroughly tempestuous orchestral introduction to twist and coil with – and through – the winds, lightly propulsive and with little moments of surprising sonorities encountered. Though it’s in sonata form you might suspect it’s a more fluid creation, moving episodically and somewhat whimsically through to the end of the movement which is best characterised by the strenuous demands made on the soloist. The work’s dedicatee Dezyderiusz Danczowski (the violinist Kaja Danczowska’s grandfather) must have had both technique and stamina.

The Aria second movement is a free fantasia with some poignant wind writing, ruminative and introspective, where winds add a tapestry or bouquet of colour to the writing. An extensive cadenza rocks back and forth and trills. The finale is a tempestuous Passacaglia that allows the cello sonic room to sound and not become submerged in the orchestral thickets before the music thins to almost pastoral indolence. Its intermittent relentlessness gives it an obvious structure and the demands high up the fingerboard are extreme. There are in fact two versions included of the Passacaglia. The second version is two minutes longer – longer for its contrapuntal interplay to register, perhaps. Nevertheless, for all its complexity and sonic interest it lacks clear-cut melodic distinction, yet again, and some of the more outré orchestration sounds unnecessarily complex.

It’s appropriate that Borowicz directs the Poznań Philharmonic, as that’s the city where Nowowiejski lived for many years. Their orchestral contribution is overwhelmingly committed and in default of any competing versions, this will be the go-to disc for these two concertos for some considerable time to come. The two soloists perform heroically. I’ve listened to both concertos several times and remain uncommitted and somewhat unpersuaded by them – but not unpersuaded by the performances, resplendently recorded.

Jonathan Woolf

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