The Polish Romantic Guitar - The Polish Musical Renaissance - National Chopin Institute Recording Review

Mateusz Kowalski

Works by

Fryderyk Chopin (1810-1849)

Jan Nepomucen Bobrowicz (1805-1881)

Felix Horecki (1796-1870)

Stanisław Szczepanowski (1811? - 1877)

Marek Konrad Sokołowski (1818-1883)

Guitarist: Mateusz Kowalski

CD number: NIFCCD 118

Again, this ghastly pandemic has opened up caverns of reading time for me without distractions. I am once more inspired in my life and music practice by that singularly appropriate text from Edward Elgar's The Dream of Gerontius taken from the poem of the same name by Cardinal John Henry Newman

And while the storm of that bewilderment
Is for a season spent
And, ere afresh the ruin on me fall,
Use well the interval.

I brought this to bear in the following review of a CD devoted to the guitar in Poland and outstanding Polish guitar compositions. I agree, at first sight an arcane and not a well-known subject, but it suffers undeserved neglect. I have always loved the classical, acoustic guitar. My harpsichord builder, the great luthier David Rubio, made some of the finest modern instruments in existence.

It is scarcely known that next to the piano, Chopin's favourite instrument was the guitar. The poet Bogdan Zaleski (1802-1886), whose verses he often set to music, wrote in his poem To the Guitar

Companion to the spring of life!
Confidant of a tender soul,
May your plaintive sounding strings
Drown out my listless sighs.

The distinguished Polish organologist and musicologist, Benjamin Vogel, informs us that among the early nineteenth century instrument workshops of Warsaw, there were around ten luthiers. They continued the long and renowned history of violin production in Poland. As pointed out in a previous review, we now enjoy rather luxurious circumstances concerning musical instruments. During Chopin's youth only wealthy households could afford a piano, so the popular instrument was the metal-stringed English guitar. 

An English Guitar by W. Gibson / 1772 with a spruce soundboard. The original bridge is of ebony with an ivory saddle (University of Edinburgh)

This was supplanted after 1808 for men by the familiar Spanish guitar, although women tended to favour the more delicate English version so Łukasz Gołębiowski tells us in Games and Amusements of Various Classes (1831)

I managed to find a rare recording of the English Guitar with 18th century guitar music written expressly for it by Handel and Geminiani including a charming piece by J.C.Bach for English Guitar and Violin accompaniment. Taro Takeuchi plays with a seductive tenderness. The instrument should be used far more often in recital !

'The quiet tones, lower tuning and lush chords of the Spanish guitar accompany singing and satisfactorily support the human voice: the English guitar plays more substantial pieces.'

The finest craftsman was Henryk Rudert I. His instruments with gut strings were carved and inlaid with wood, silver and ivory. They were acclaimed for their rich tone. 

On this fine recording the gifted Polish guitarist and musician Mateusz Kowalski plays a 2015 spruce Spanish guitar by the renowned and long established German builder Karl-Heinz Roemmich.

The beautiful and expensively produced solid cardboard cover of this CD contains an informative booklet and high quality period illustrations on quality paper. I had no idea how highly Polish guitarists and their compositions were regraded in nineteenth century Europe - this is sure to be a surprise for many. It is an intrinsic and charming addition to the present recorded legacy, a Polish musical renaissance pioneered by Stanisław Leszczyński, Artistic Director of the National Fryderkyk Chopin Institute.

Stanisław Szczepanowski (1811?-1877), known as 'the king of the guitar', was considered the foremost guitar virtuoso of the day. He was named court guitarist by Queen Victoria and court soloist by Queen Isabella II of Spain. Also favored by the Kings of Belgium, he performed in Dresden, London, Russia, Poland, Turkey and of course Spain. A courageous man, he was awarded the Order of Virtuti Militari for distinction in the November Uprising of 1830. As might be imagined in light of this, he improvised at an important concert in Paris on the patriotic song, which became the official national anthem in 1927, Jeszcze Polska nie zginęła [Poland has not yet perished]. This was at a reception organized for the great Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz on Christmas Eve 1840. The Polish émigrés at the Paris Salon were deeply moved. 

He committed this short set of Variations to paper and a fine performance concludes this CD. One can imagine this being performed on the guitar in partisan and soldier camps around the evening bivouac fire during the cruel partitions of the country. A miniature by this composer is also included entitled Une Larme Morceau expresif ('A Tear') originally for cello and piano but affectingly arranged for guitar by the modern American guitarist Matanya Ophee. 

Jan Nepomucen Bobrowicz (1805-1881) was known as 'the Chopin of the guitar' and produced some ravishing, idiomatic transcriptions of Chopin Mazurkas for the guitar. He was also one of the most renowned Polish performer-composers of the day and his original compositions on this recording support this contention. Also a publisher of literary works in Polish, he significantly aided the preservation of the language during the brutal Partitions of the country by smuggling hundreds of works across the frontier. 

The Op.6 and Op.7 Chopin mazurkas, transcribed so musically for the guitar, although familiar, opened a window onto a different landscape of musical interpretation and content for me. The loving, slow tempo and gentleness of the finger-plucked sonority, the caressed melodies, transported me into an atmosphere of intimacy, colour and refinement rarely encountered on the percussive piano in a modern concert hall, except perhaps by pianists of great stature. Of course the folk element, and perhaps surprisingly a Sarmatian feel of the plucked Oud, were heightened on this modest instrument so popular with ordinary folk and Chopin himself. Sarmatian traits were cultivated in the Polish character in the eighteenth century.
On 2nd November 1830, Chopin left Poland for Vienna, never to return. He travelled in the coach with his teacher Józef Elsner and some friends as far as the Wola gate, not so distant from the old election field for Polish kings. In a typically protracted Polish farewell they alighted shortly after leaving the city, the coach was suddenly surrounded by a group of men. His old teacher had written a cantata which the assembled choir sang accompanied by a guitar, the instrument he particularly loved. The words implored Chopin to remember Poland and to hold the harmonies of the country close in his soul wherever he might be. When listening to these transcriptions for the expressive guitar, one cannot help but reflect on this poetic, melancholic image of tearful departure, the sorrows of exile and the inherent intense nostalgia of both sadness and remembered joys.

Bobrowicz is also represented by his Variations on a Ukrainian Song Op.7. This work, splendidly brought off in fine rural style by Kowalski, is dedicated to Count Wincenty Tyszkiwicz (1796-1856) an important leader of the 1830 November Uprising. It is by nature a mazurka, a soldier's camp song from Zadwórz near Lviv (inhabited by Poles at that time). 

Stand in a field! Stand in a field!
And sleep in a field!
Even if there's food,
There's nothing to cook it in.

In his delightful Distraction (amusement) Rondeau brillant et facile, Op.17, Bobrowicz presents the instrumentalist with great technical challenges of polyphony and lightness of execution in a concert rondo. Kowalski copes with these demands with both panache and elan. I also greatly enjoyed his Grand Variations on Themes 'La ci darem la mano' from the opera Don Giovanni by Mozart. An infectiously musical performance by Kowalski.

Felix Horecki (1796-1870) was a sparkling pupil of the great Italian guitarist Mauro Giulani (1781-1829) who had conquered Europe with his art. Horecki tragically injured his hand which resulted in his teaching the guitar in Edinburgh and composing pedagogical miniatures. In the Fantasy in D major Op.40 we have a perfect example of the entertaining and undemanding style brillant embraced by Chopin but performed on the guitar with great style and delicacy by Kowalski.

Marek Konrad Sokołowski (1818-1883) possessed the moniker 'Byron of the guitar' and was lauded to the skies in Europe but particularly in Russia. Born in 1818 near Berdyczów in present day Ukraine, he was largely self-taught from childhood. During the 1860s he made distinguished tours of Paris, London, Vienna, Milan, Berlin, Hamburg, Brussels, Vilnius, Leipzig, Poznań, Krakow, Warsaw, Lviv before highly distinguished aristocratic audiences. As a man, although earning high fees, he was outstandingly generous towards his impoverished family, especially his ill mother. An artist of the highest refinement he was deeply affected by the January Uprising (22 January 1863 – 18 June 1864) which resulted in Poles and Lithuanians being persecuted, undergoing arrest, suffering execution and or deported to Siberia. 

This sadness of internal reflection bordering on despair, expressively and emotionally overlays his Etude in D major. A poignant piece ...

A Farewell to Europe Aleksander Sochaczewski (Independence Museum in Warsaw)

Not many of his works survive to give any idea of his consummate art. This Etude entitled The Post: A Musical Image is rather evocative.

A Mail Coach around 1850

This is a diverting and thought-provoking recording of unfamiliar music from a forgotten world of Polish achievement and musical dominance. Winston Churchill's notorious 'iron curtain' was a cultural as well as political barrier as I hope you will learn from these remarkable recordings. All utterly new to me apart from the Chopin of course. Mateusz Kowalski acquits his responsibility with virtuosity in addition to expressing sensitive and convincing musicality on the guitar. 

Pandemic CD purchase link to the Chopin Institute Shop


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