Déjà Review: this review was first published in August 2002 and the recording is still available.

Zygmunt Stojowski (1870-1946)
Piano Concerto No 1 in F sharp minor, Op. 3
Piano Concerto No 2 in A flat major (Prologue, Scherzo and Variations), Op. 32
Jonathan Plowright (piano), BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/Martyn Brabbins
rec. 2001, Caird Hall, Dundee, UK
The Romantic Piano Concerto: Volume 28
Hyperion CDA67314 [68]

‘Zygmunt who?’, you may ask. If, like me, you had never even heard of Zygmunt Stojowski prior to the appearance of this disc it may be helpful if I begin with a biographical outline (for which I am indebted to Joseph Herter’s excellent liner notes).

Stojowski was born in the Russian sector of Poland. At the age of 18, following studies in Cracow, he moved to Paris where his teachers included Delibes (for composition). He attracted considerable attention both as a virtuoso pianist and as a composer (his Symphony in D minor, Op. 21 was included in the inaugural concert of the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra in 1901.) In 1905 he went to America to head the piano department of the new Institute of Musical Art (a forerunner of the Juilliard School of Music) and thereafter he made his home in New York. From around the period of the First World War he effectively ceased to compose and devoted himself to teaching and performance.

During Stojowski’s lifetime his music was performed by many of the leading artists of the day including pianists Percy Grainger, Josef Hofmann and the legendary Paderewski himself; violinists George Enescu, Jascha Heifetz and Jacques Thibaud; and conductors Walter Damrosch, Pierre Monteux, Artur Nikisch, and Leopold Stokowski. However, despite such advocacy his music eventually fell into almost total neglect. In part this may have been because he did not produce any significant new pieces for about the last thirty years of his life. More likely, however, his music fell out of fashion because its arch-Romantic language was no longer appealing.

His First Piano Concerto, which he dedicated to Anton Rubinstein, was composed in 1890 and was premiered by the composer himself in Paris the following year. Stojowski subsequently played it with the Berlin Philharmonic and also with the Hallé in Manchester.

It is cast in the usual three movements, the first of which opens with a brooding theme on the cellos and basses. This is the main thematic material of the movement. Once the soloist enters we quickly become aware that the music is written by a compatriot of Chopin. Furthermore the sound world is not dissimilar to that of Rachmaninov (though without the aching melancholy of the Russian master). There are plenty of bravura passages and several passionate climaxes but much of the music is actually rather delicate with filigree passagework for the soloist, often accompanied by eloquent orchestral solos. In one such exquisite passage the pianist accompanies a gorgeous, yearning cello solo (Track 1, 9’ 17″) Arguably there are a few too many digressions into reflective byways, which do rather impede the forward flow of the music. However, when the thematic material is so lush and the scoring is so effective it would be curmudgeonly to complain too loudly.

The second movement is a Romanza of great beauty. It opens in hushed tones with lovely solos for horn and cor anglais on which the pianist begins to elaborate. Once again, Chopin is not far away. Though there are one or two fully scored passages, for the most part this movement consists of delicate and highly atmospheric music which is performed here with the utmost sensitivity by all concerned. There are particularly notable contributions from the orchestra’s principal cor anglais player and from the first cellist (the latter’s duet with the soloist (track 2, 6’ 23″) is just as affecting as their collaboration in the first movement to which I referred earlier.)

The finale does indeed begin ‘con fuoco’ as marked. This is a headlong gallop in 6/8 time in which the demands on the soloist’s virtuosity reach new peaks. Here, for the most part, Stojowski resists the temptation to dally and the music maintains a strong forward momentum until the roof-raising conclusion.

The Second Concerto, written in 1909-1910 and dedicated to Paderewski, was, like its predecessor, premiered by the composer. This premiere was given in London, at an LSO concert conducted by Nikisch in 1913. Two years later Stojowski gave the first American performance in Carnegie Hall and in 1916 the dedicatee himself played the work in the same hall to great acclaim.

The layout of this work is most unusual. It consists of a Prologue, Scherzo and a Theme and ten Variations, all played without a break (Very sensibly Hyperion track all 13 sections individually.) Indeed, when Paderewski gave the work in New York it was billed as ‘Prologue, Scherzo and Variations’.

The Prologue is a rhapsodic andante. Once again the composer does demonstrate something of a propensity for dalliance along the way. The music is richly romantic and lushly scored. Such passages as the intense, memorably soaring violin theme (at Track 4, 5’ 34″) are a delight – naughty but nice!

By contrast, the Scherzo is all energy, featuring some puckish writing for wind and brass. The piano constantly scampers around. This is sparkling, witty music which is, I imagine, very difficult to play well (as it certainly is here)

The theme on which the variations are based (Track 6) is a powerful, deep melody given out by the strings with piano accompaniment. Like all good variation material it is memorable and capable of much manipulation. The piano is silent in the first variation (Track 7), an expansive solo for cor anglais. Thereafter, however, the soloist leads the argument (but fully supported by the orchestra who are true partners as the variations unfold.) With the exception of the Variation 10, the Finale, all the variations are concise with the longest of them lasting only just over 2 minutes. Stojowski was cunning in his choice of the theme and variations form for this allows him to show off the technique of his soloist (to say nothing of his own skills as an orchestrator) in many different ways and in a variety of tempi and rhythms. The variations are inventive, resourceful and tautly constructed.

This last movement occupies over 20 minutes of the concerto’s duration and it clearly makes copious and varied demands on the soloist. Jonathan Plowright gives a stunning performance (as, indeed, he does of all the music on this CD), culminating in a dazzling yet poetic account of the long final variation. This starts off sounding like The Sorcerer’s Apprentice but eventually the music dies away in a subdued ending which is quite unlike the ending of a ‘conventional’ romantic concerto but most effective and satisfying.

Throughout this disc Jonathan Plowright’s playing is simply a knockout. In the power and trenchancy of his playing (when required) he reminded me of John Ogdon at his finest. But besides calling for sheer virtuosity these concertos offer ample opportunities for him to display delicacy, sensitivity and fantasy and never is he found wanting. The same is true of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under the energetic and perspicacious direction of Martyn Brabbins. Their accompaniments are superb, matching the flair, dexterity and passion of their soloist.

Many CDs are issued which feature so-called neglected masterpieces but all too often it is readily apparent that the neglect of the works in question has not been unjustified. This is emphatically not the case here. As I have commented, Stojowski does sometimes linger a little self-indulgently but overall these concertos are expertly crafted and they contain memorable thematic material – all, right, let’s be honest, good tunes, in fact. In short, both are hugely enjoyable. I count them as major discoveries and I have no doubt that when the editor seeks nominations for CD of the year this release will be very high on my shortlist.

In summary, this CD offers top class musicianship, excellent notes, fine recorded sound and an opportunity to hear two marvellous, scandalously neglected romantic piano concertos. Rush out, buy it – and enjoy!

John Quinn

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