Zygmunt Stojowski (1870-1946)
Symphony in D minor Op.21 (1898)
Suite for Orchestra in E flat major Op.9 (1891)
Deutsche Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz/Antoni Wit
rec. 2021, Ludwigshafen Philharmonie Germany
Capriccio C5464 
This is my first encounter with the music of Zygmunt Stojowski. Given his Polish heritage it is no real surprise that labels such as Dux and Acte Préalable have featured his works. Hyperion have included concerti in both their Romantic Piano and Romantic violin series. The early Suite for Orchestra Op.9 included here appeared on an earlier Dux disc, but I cannot see any listing for the substantial [41:00] Symphony although nothing on this new disc indicates a premiere commercial recording.
There seems to be a degree of confusion regarding the date and place of Stojowski’s birth. The former is due to the use of different calendars and the latter due to a combination of loss of records in the destruction of World War II and also Poland’s fate as a country squabbled over by neighbouring empires. By the last decade of the 19th Century when these works were written Polish Nationalism in the Arts was emerging mainly through the efforts of pianist/composer/prime minister Ignacy Jan Paderewski. Stojowski’s initial composing training took place in Paris where he studied with Delibes with the Suite for Orchestra the product of that period. The Symphony in D minor Op.21 dates from some seven years later after he had returned to Poland and was studying with Paderewski – to whom the symphony was dedicated.
Both works are very attractive indeed – remarkably effective and assured for a composer in his twenties. The performances on this disc – although I have nothing against which to make direct comparison – sound completely authoritative, conducted with all the insight and flair we know to expect from Antoni Wit, played with easy skill and sensitivity by the Deutsche Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz and engineered with Capriccio’s typical detail and warmth. The earlier suite is placed second on the disc – possibly it would make more musical sense to reverse the order. Both works have an unmistakably Slavic spirit but this is explicit in the three movement suite that runs to just over twenty five minutes. The influence/inspiration is the Tchaikovsky Suites for orchestra – especially numbers 2 and 3. Stojowski opens with a Thème varié. The theme is derived from a Polish Marian hymn although as the liner points out, its use is purely due to its musical suitability rather than political or religious inspiration. After a very simple, almost sombre, presentation of the theme it is subjected to just four variations across the movement’s 11:11 length with the final variation the length of the other three combined. What is immediately apparent – and this is true of all the music on the disc – is that Stojowski is a skilled and sensitive orchestrator. He uses a fairly standard late Romantic orchestra – think Tchaikovsky – but with busy and interesting writing for the brass and wind. The music has few of the neuroses that plagued other fin de siècle composers and generally the style is traditional rather than mould-breaking. The closing variation – Molto tranquillo e con espressione which leads into an Allegro molto moderato has the quality of melancholy that infuses scores from Tchaikovsky to Rachmaninov and is very skilfully orchestrated with harp and woodwind figurations decorating solo string melodies. For a student composer these effects are extremely well judged and not over-scored. The fugal writing in the allegro molto moderato does feel a little academic and “worked out” but it builds to a rather grand almost Brucknerian peroration played with suitable grandeur and burnished tone by the Staatsphilharmonie brass.
The Polish influence continues with an Intermède polonaise. Again the skill of the orchestration is striking and the melody has an attractive swaying almost balletic lilt which is reminiscent of Borodin. Another feature is Stojowski’s use of low wind – cor anglais and bass clarinet – which again colours the music with a mournful character. This will return in the symphony. The suite ends with a Rêvereie et Cracovienne. The first section is yet another attractive wistful melody passed around the woodwind over gently syncopating strings. Very gradually the tempo picks up until around the 2:10 mark the music builds – in a distinctly Tchaikovskian sequential manner to the Cracovienne ‘proper’. This is probably the weakest part of the work with the melodic material having to work rather too hard and Stojowski going through a series of compositional tricks to achieve the required “big finish” which actually comes rather abruptly – so abruptly that Wit has to put in an unmarked allargando in the penultimate bars to prevent the music from crashing into the buffers. But overall I have to say I am extremely impressed by this wholly enjoyable and impressive piece. No surprise to read from the liner that Tchaikovsky was scheduled to conduct a performance in 1894 (he died before he could) and that dedicatee Hans von Bülow conducted it in Hamburg while Brahms expressed admiration for the orchestration.
Impressive although the suite is, the Symphony in D minor Op.21 feels like a significant progression just eight years later. Yes the spirit of the work, the sense of brooding melancholy is very much present and the musical vocabulary is still firmly rooted in the late –Romantic which, as the liner neatly puts it; “Stojowski never found any reason to reject.” Certainly Stojowski does not seek to break any symphonic traditions with the music of the Russian Romantics a strong influence – the very first musical gestures from the aforementioned bass clarinet and cor anglais root the work firmly in that tradition although curiously the liner makes no reference to this at all. The slow introduction is brief before the main Allegro moderato is established. At several points in this work I was strongly reminded of Rachmaninov’s Symphony No.2 but that work postdates this by the best part of a decade. I do not think the Stojowski was so well known to have influenced the younger composer so I suspect coincidence. There is a sweep to the string writing that anyone who enjoys the more famous composer’s work will respond to. The slow movement Andante placed second continues this sense of musical fellow-travellers. Here we have a long-breathed clarinet solo accompanied by a warm bed of rich string harmonies. The uncredited clarinettist here plays with a quite delightful unforced sensitivity. This is a genuinely beautiful passage. The two closing movements are less reminiscent of Rachmaninov. The scherzo marked Molto Vivace is placed third. This flies by with the feel of some nocturnal mischievous spectral flight. Unusually the basic swift 3/8 tempo is unrelenting without the central “trio” section that would usually allow the tempo to relax even if only temporarily. As a consequence this is quite a virtuosic showpiece for the orchestra and one that is played here with tremendous panache and flair. Again Stojowski show deft instrumental touches with glockenspiel and harp flecking the textures with glimmers of light and colour before the movement whirls away in a wisp of musical smoke.
The finale has a ceremonial almost heroic flavour. Here, and indeed elsewhere in the work, Stojowski revisits earlier thematic material to give the work a satisfying sense of unity. The dotted rhythm of the main theme suggests another Polish folk dance although not as explicitly as in the earlier Suite. This finale runs to 11:08 in this performance and perhaps lacks some of the individuality and interest that marks out the earlier movements so strongly – there is a slight sense, as in the closing movement of the suite, of the composer having to work-out the material in a fractionally academic way. But once the closing pages are reached and the final peroration is reached it makes for an uplifting and powerful ending – even if the very end is again rather abruptly reached.
But there is so much music of genuine interest and reward in both works that their relative neglect is a surprise. The liner suggests that this might simply be due to political whim. In 1905 Stojowski took up an invitation to become head of the piano department at the Institute of Musical Art in New York (by 1924 this would become the Juillard School). New York became his home for the rest of his life. He had a successful career in the States and by living there avoided the fate that befell of so many of his compatriots before, during and after World War II. However, post-war his reputation in his homeland under Communist rule was not aided by his association with America. The Stojowski revival only really began post the collapse of the Soviet Union. But even now he remains a very unfamiliar name to even well-informed Classical Music enthusiasts.
Hopefully the excellence of this disc will encourage listeners and performers to seek out this music. Another disc of real interest and value from the ever-impressive Capriccio catalogue.
Previous review: Jonathan Woolf (June 2022)
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