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Hyperion Records

CDA67630 - Melcer-Szczawinski: Piano Concertos
CDA67630

Recording details: March 2007
City Halls, Candleriggs, Glasgow, Scotland
Produced by Jeremy Hayes
Engineered by Tony Faulkner
Release date: January 2008
DISCID: 4C0F9F06
Total duration: 66 minutes 5 seconds

PIANIST MAGAZINE - RECOMMENDED

'The Second Concerto from 1898, also in three movements, is crowned by a hair-raising final Allegro con fuoco, a remarkable tour de force which, were it ever to be heard in a concert hall, would have you on your feet at the end cheering … Plowright enhances his glowing reputation as a musical alchemist of rare distinction with a transcendent technique' (Gramophone)

'Melcer's own abundant originality shines out frequently, notable in the marvellously poetic latter portions of the first movement of the C minor Concerto … Jonathan Plowright and Christoph König have done a superb job of absorbing Melcer's idiom. Care over both works' expressive rhetoric is everywhere apparent in performances that suggest affectionate familiarity … clearly a distinguished addition to this fascinating series' (BBC Music Magazine)

'Jonathan Plowright explores more of the Polish keyboard repertoire with these technically unforgiving but hugely enjoyable late 19th-century works by Henryk Melcer. The first bursts with melodic invention … the second requires tremendous stamina from Plowright, who plays almost continually, ending with a massive final allegro that will take your breath away. Christoph König and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra accompany with panache' (The Observer)

'This Hyperion release is simply stunning. Jonathan Plowright taps into the Polish vein with the required vision and power … the plaudits for Plowright … confirm a colossal musical mind and matching technical ease' (International Record Review)

'If the First Concerto is a heroic barnstormer in post-Lisztian mode, the Second … is flavoured with Chopinesque, neoclassical reminiscences, à la Saint-Saëns, and features an utterly enchanting second theme and infectiously dance-like finale. Plowright sounds completely unfazed by even the most note-splattered pages, throwing himself into the fray with abandonment and aplomb' (Classic FM Magazine)

'There's plenty to enjoy here … the excellent Jonathan Plowright performs with conviction. If you're an adventurous musical archeologist who's been enjoying the earlier installments of Hyperion's Romantic Piano Concerto series, you'll definitely want this on your shelves as well' (Fanfare, USA)

'Jonathan Plowright is the right man to handle these minor monsters. No matter how many notes Melcer throws in his direction and how dense the orchestra's sound, Plowright fights his way to a triumphant victory … he is a constant joy … it is a pleasure to discover these rare Romantic piano concertos from the Hyperion stable—long may they continue' (Pianist)

'No matter what Melcer throws at him, Plowright not only emerges completely unscathed but sounds as though he's having the time of his life' (International Piano)

'The Second Concerto is on a larger-scale (37 minutes), the first movement opening with the piano alone, somewhat introspectively, in the manner of one of Brahms's 'late' piano pieces, with some decorous woodwind interjections lightening the mood, the strings increasing the pace with dramatic impulse. The piano, not stirred, continues to muse, but the combatants, if they are, then become heated together as the movement progresses—with plenty of pianistic fireworks—and without compromising the piano's ability to express regretful feelings in a shapely manner … the slow movement begins unexpectedly—with a trumpet solo, sounded as if from a barracks and somewhat 'Last Post', before the piano enters with a haunting melody that is to dominate—and will prove equally effective on full strings. The finale is scintillating and, at 3’14”, there arrives a majestic passage that could pass as a National Anthem! Throughout Jonathan Plowright plays with dedication, affection and technical aplomb and is well supported by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and Christoph König. The recorded sound is superb—with ideal balance between piano and orchestra and between warmth, presence and clarity—and is transferred at a level that respects dynamic variety. Joseph A. Herter's booklet note is enlightening' (ClassicalSource.com)

'Jonathan Plowright provides a masterclass in dexterity at the keyboard, rising to meet all of the composer's challenges with a combination of scintillating virtuosity and deft sensitivity. The end of the C minor Concerto's opening movement is particularly telling, as he delivers the brilliant cadenza with utter authority before gently whisking the music away with a flourish of almost impossibly quick semiquavers. Plowright is adroitly partnered by Christoph König and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, who more than do justice to Melcer's imaginative orchestrations whilst also relishing the frequent interplay between soloist and ensemble' (Musical Criticism.com)

The Romantic Piano Concerto
Piano Concertos
Maestoso  [13'57]
Andantino  [4'36]
Allegro moderato  [14'42]
Allegro con fuoco  [10'15]

Hyperion’s celebrated Romantic Piano Concerto series reaches volume 44. This disc includes two prize-winning concertos written in the 1890s by the Polish composer-pianist Henryk Melcer.

The first is written in the style of Liszt and Chopin, and is notable particularly for its thrilling finale which is marked by its strong Polish character: starting as a mazurka, the accelerando through the movement increases the excitement of the piece, giving it the frenzy of a kujawiak or oberek.

The second concerto was also appreciated by contemporary critics for its imaginative use of Polish themes: one reviewer writes of ‘themes full of expression in Polish character that are developed so splendidly and broadly that they leave us enraptured … an unforgettable impression remains after hearing the Concerto’. This work demands particular technical virtuosity, versatility and stamina on the part of the pianist, who is playing almost continuously.


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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Henryk Melcer-Szczawinski—pianist-composer, conductor-teacher and music administrator—began his early musical education with his maternal grandmother, Józefa Klemczynska, and later with his father, Karol, who was a violinist and choir director. His father came from the ancient city of Kalisz (Calisia), first mentioned by the Romans in the second century as being on the amber route between Rome and the Baltic Sea; the city is approximately sixty-five miles southeast of Poznan (Posen). It was in Kalisz that Henryk continued his musical studies at the local boys’ gymnasium and won the school’s gold medal upon graduation in 1887. Returning to Warsaw, Henryk simultaneously majored in mathematics at Warsaw University and in music at Warsaw’s Music Institute. There he studied the piano with Rudolf Strobl and composition with Zygmunt Noskowski, whose tone poem Steppe remains one of the most beloved and frequently performed symphonic pieces of nineteenth-century Polish repertoire. Melcer continued his studies in Vienna in mathematics and music, the latter with the Polish pianist Theodor Leschetizky. Some sources mention that Melcer also studied with Aleksander Michalowski and/or Moritz Moszkowski, but these claims are dubious.

Melcer composed his Piano Concerto No 1 in E minor in Vienna in 1892–4, while under the tutelage of Leschetizky. Written in the style of Liszt and Chopin, the work is dedicated ‘Ŕ Monsieur Louis Bösendorfer’. The composer created a truncated version of the concerto entitled Conzertstück, which he submitted with his Piano Trio in G minor and the first two piano miniatures from Trois morceaux caractéristiques to the Second Anton Rubinstein Competition. Twenty-two of the twenty-six jurors voted to award Melcer the competition’s Composition Prize in Berlin in 1895. Members of the jury included Professor Johansen of the St Petersburg Conservatory (as chairman), Salomon Jadassohn from Leipzig, Charles-Marie Widor from the Paris Conservatory, Vasily Il’ich Safonov from the Moscow Conservatory, and Asger Hamerick, director of the Peabody Institute in Baltimore.

One of the requirements of the competition was to submit a Conzertstück for piano. Since this genre usually consists of a work for solo instrument and orchestra, played in one movement or without breaks between movements, Melcer had no problem editing his monothematic concerto for the competition. He simply eliminated the first movement in E minor, Maestoso, with its brilliant culminating fugato, and began instead with the Andantino, the second movement. There is no pause between the short second movement and the final movement in E major, Vivo ma non troppo e poi molto accelerando. This finale is marked by its strong Polish character: starting as a mazurka, a dance form in triple metre with accents on the second or third beat, the accelerando through the movement increases the excitement of the piece, giving it the frenzy of a kujawiak or oberek.

The first performance of the truncated version of this work took place in Berlin on 20 August 1895, with Melcer performing with an ad hoc orchestra under the direction of Karl Klindworth, who shared the competition’s conducting responsibilities with Ferruccio Busoni, laureate of the First Anton Rubinstein Competition in 1890. On 24 January 1896, the full concerto was performed by the composer in Lwów (now L’viv in Ukraine). Melcer performed the work with the orchestra of the Galician Musical Society, with Rudolf Schwarz conducting. In addition to his own concerto, Melcer also performed Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No 5 and a group of works for solo piano by Brahms, Chopin, Grieg and Liszt. Ludwig Doblinger in Vienna first published Melcer’s first concerto in 1904; fifty years later, it was reissued by Polskie Wydawnictwo Muzyczne (PWM) in Cracow, edited by the late pianist Maria Wilkomirska, sister of the famous Polish violinist Wanda Wilkomirska.

Michael Ponti made the first commercial recording of the concerto, with the Warsaw National Philharmonic Orchestra and conductor Tadeusz Strugala, in 1980. Historic performances of the work include one by Jerzy Lalewicz (who received a piano diploma at the Third Anton Rubinstein Competition in 1900) with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra on 27 November 1909. During that same year Ignacy Friedman performed the work in Warsaw, having already played it with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra on 10 January 1907. Helena Ottawowa, who had been a student of both Melcer and later of Zygmunt Stojowski in Paris, performed Melcer’s concerto at least four times: in 1925 with the Warsaw Philharmonic, in 1936 with Polish Radio in Lódz and in 1925 and 1931 in Lwów where Ottawowa directed a private music school.

Performances in Great Britain were fewer and further between and not quite as enthusiastically received as they had been in Poland and Germany. A critic for The Musical Times reviewed Marguerite Melville’s performance of 8 November 1911 with the Queen’s Hall Orchestra under Sir Henry Wood, writing that the composition had ‘no exceptional value’, but that it ‘was quite worth hearing once’.

Sometime in the early 1980s, when interest in Melcer’s music saw a brief renaissance in Poland, several Polish sources began to claim that Melcer had also won third prize in the piano portion of the 1895 Anton Rubinstein Competition. This urban legend even made its way into the New Grove Dictionary. It should be remembered that this competition, held every five years from 1890 to 1910 and open only to males between the ages of twenty and twenty-six, was a contest for both pianists and composers. Only two prizes of 5,000 francs each were awarded in 1895—one for the best composer and one for the best pianist. Sometimes diplomas and/or ‘special diplomas’ were given to certain contestants but without any monetary award. The French and Polish correspondents for Le Monde musical and Echo muzyczny made no mention of the mythical ‘third prize’ in their coverage of that competition. In a letter from Berlin, dated 23 August 1895, Melcer wrote to his wife that based upon his performance the previous day he would not receive any prize. The pianist described his playing as having been exceptionally nervous, the cause of two memory slips in the required Beethoven sonata. The prize-winner from that year’s thirty-three registered competitors turned out to be Josef Lhévinne. He at first won the prize ex aequo with the French pianist Victor Staub, a student of Louis Diémer, but the jury insisted on another ballot which saw Lhévinne win by one vote. Staub and the Russian pianist Konstantin Igumnov received special diplomas. Melcer won neither a third prize nor a diploma (see Gustav A Alink: International Piano Competitions, Book 3, p. 4).

Nevertheless, in Berlin many were impressed with Melcer’s pianism and musicality, including Busoni, Diémer, Scriabin and Widor. Melcer accepted an offer to become professor of piano at the Helsinki Music Institute in autumn 1895, partially for financial reasons and partially because of the light teaching schedule that would allow him to perform during the academic year. One of his students in Helsinki was the famous Finnish composer and pianist Selim Palmgren, who included Melcer’s works in his repertoire. Helsinki was home for only one academic year, though. In 1896, Melcer moved to Lwów (known officially in the Austrio-Hungarian Empire as Lemberg) where one of his pupils in 1898 was the six-year-old Mieczyslaw Horszowski.

It was while he was living in Lwów that Melcer finished his Piano Concerto No 2 in C minor, which won the Paderewski Prize in the concerto category of the Ignacy Jan Paderewski Competition in Leipzig in 1898. This competition was for Polish composers only, and Melcer’s Paderewski Prize should not be confused with the prize of the same name also established by Paderewski at the end of the nineteenth century in the United States for American composers. Melcer was awarded the prize ex aequo with Emil Mlynarski, who submitted his Violin Concerto in D minor, Op 11. They shared the 500-rouble award for best concerto. Their colleague, Zygmunt Stojowski, however, was awarded the Paderewski Prize for best symphony and received an award of 1,000 roubles. The jury was chaired by the conductor Artur Nikish and also consisted of the composer and conductor Carl Reinecke, the cellist Julius Klengel and the music critic F R Pfau.

The Piano Concerto No 2 is in three movements and dedicated to Melcer’s Viennese mentor Theodor Leschetizky. It was first published by Léon Idzikowski in Kiev and Warsaw in 1913. The concerto’s first movement, Allegro moderato, is in sonata-allegro form and in triple metre. The second, Andante non troppo lento, is in three-part song form and in common time beginning in C major, using a motif based on the interval of the sixth. The finale, Allegro con fuoco, in duple metre with whirling rhythms and a dance-like character, is a sonata-rondo form. The premiere took place in Leipzig in August 1898 and its first Polish performance was heard later that year in Lwów. The first commercial recording was made by the pianist Teresa Rutkowska in 1980, with the Warsaw National Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Józef Wilkomirski. An earlier archival recording made for Polish Radio in 1952 by the pianist Józef Smidowicz (a participant of the Fifth Anton Rubinstein Competition in St Petersburg in 1910) and the Polish Radio National Symphony Orchestra in Katowice, with Jan Krenz conducting, was issued in 1999.

Melcer’s concertos demand technical virtuosity, versatility and stamina on the part of the pianist. About a minute into the first concerto, for example, the soloist is challenged with very rapid octave arpeggios in the right hand. In the second concerto the third-movement cadenza (where the second theme appears) poses another severe technical challenge for the pianist. Most of all, though, stamina is the main problem, especially in the second concerto where the pianist plays almost continuously. In her biography of her father Wanda Melcer quotes a review that appeared in the Kurier poranny following a performance in Warsaw of the second concerto on 30 October 1912. The critic Roman Jasin´ski wrote: ‘It is necessary to wonder why the Concerto in C minor does not find a permanent place in the repertoire [in Poland]. There are themes full of expression in Polish character that are developed so splendidly and broadly that they leave us enraptured … An unforgettable impression remains after hearing the Concerto.’ Ninety-five years later, the same remarks hold true.

From Lwów, and following his triumph in Leipzig, Henryk moved to Lódz, Poland’s second largest city, where he directed the Lódz Musical Society between 1899 and 1902. From 1903 to 1907, Melcer was a piano professor at the Konservatorium der Gesellschaft der Musik-Freunde in Vienna. During these years in Vienna he travelled once a month to both Warsaw and Lwów to give piano lessons. Melcer finally moved back to Warsaw to become the artistic director of the Warsaw Philharmonic in the autumn of 1908, a post he resigned from the following season. He stayed on, however, as the choir director and as the director of the Philharmonic’s chamber music and oratorio series. In 1915 he became the artistic director of the Warsaw Opera (Teatr Wielki), but resigned in protest in 1916 because of the German operatic repertoire which the company was forced to perform. After the outbreak of the Great War in 1914, Warsaw spent the entire conflict under German military occupation.

Towards the end of World War I Melcer became piano professor at the re-established Warsaw Conservatory. The end of that first world-consuming conflict in 1918 also saw the resurgence of a sovereign Polish nation for the first time in almost 150 years. In 1922, Melcer replaced Emil Mlynarski as the conservatory’s rector.

Melcer resigned from his conservatory post in 1926 (his successor was Karol Szymanowski), but he remained on the faculty, teaching both piano and composition. A year later he served on the jury of the First International Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw, and gave his last performance during a concert of his own works directed by cellist-conductor Kazimierz Wilkomirski, still another musical sibling of Maria, Józef and Wanda. While giving a lecture at the Warsaw Conservatory, Melcer suffered a heart attack and died on 18 April 1928 at the age of fifty-nine. On 21 April Mozart’s Requiem was sung at his funeral service at Holy Cross Basilica, the church in which Chopin’s heart is enshrined.

Melcer was not a prolific composer. His orchestral works include the two concertos found on this CD, a programmatic symphony in C minor entitled ‘Four Romantic Pictures in the Form of a Symphony’ that was never published and whose score and parts have been lost, and a set of marches for military band. His other compositions include several chamber music pieces, a number of miniatures for solo piano, a couple of song cycles and a handful of choral works, an opera Maria (which won the first prize of 5,000 roubles in a 1903 competition in Warsaw) and an unfinished opera Protesilas i Laodamia, and seven piano arrangements of art songs by Stanislaw Moniuszko. One of the best pianists of his time, Melcer was responsible for training an entire generation of Polish musicians, and it is for his pedagogical work that he is best remembered in his native Poland, where his works are seldom performed today. In Warsaw, the Chopin Academy of Music’s chamber music hall is named in honour of its former rector.

Joseph A Herter © 2008


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The Romantic Piano Concerto, Vol. 55 – Widor
Buy by post £10.50 CDA67817 
'The Romantic Piano Concerto, Vol. 56 – Kalkbrenner' (CDA67843)
The Romantic Piano Concerto, Vol. 56 – Kalkbrenner
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'The Romantic Piano Concerto, Vol. 57 – Wiklund' (CDA67828)
The Romantic Piano Concerto, Vol. 57 – Wiklund
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'The Romantic Piano Concerto, Vol. 58 – Pixis & Thalberg' (CDA67915)
The Romantic Piano Concerto, Vol. 58 – Pixis & Thalberg
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'The Romantic Piano Concerto, Vol. 59 – Zarzycki & Żeleński' (CDA67958)
The Romantic Piano Concerto, Vol. 59 – Zarzycki & Żeleński
Buy by post £10.50 CDA67958  Studio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available
'The Romantic Piano Concerto, Vol. 60 – Dubois' (CDA67931)
The Romantic Piano Concerto, Vol. 60 – Dubois
Buy by post £10.50 CDA67931  Studio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available
'The Romantic Piano Concerto, Vol. 61' (CDA67950)
The Romantic Piano Concerto, Vol. 61
Buy by post £10.50 CDA67950  Studio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available
'The Romantic Piano Concerto, Vol. 62 – Gounod' (CDA67975)
The Romantic Piano Concerto, Vol. 62 – Gounod
Buy by post £10.50 CDA67975  Studio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available
'The Romantic Piano Concerto, Vol. 63 – Godard' (CDA68043)
The Romantic Piano Concerto, Vol. 63 – Godard
Buy by post £10.50 CDA68043  Studio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available
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