Tuesday, November 15, 2022

Poles Not So Far Apart on November’s Second Sunday

Laurence Kayaleh and Bernadene Blaha play Żeleński and Noskowski at Rolling Hills United Methodist Church.


Bernadene Blaha and Laurence Kayaleh, Second Sundays at Two, Rolling Hills United Methodist Church

In November 2021 the duo of Laurence Kayaleh (violin) and Bernadene Blaha (piano) gave a fine recital of sonatas by Grieg and Franck in the 2021-22 season of this Classical Crossroads series, and a year less a day later they were back at RHUMC—as previously, in front of an invited audience suitably masked and inoculated, but this time simultaneously livestreamed—for another pairing of violin sonatas, considerably further off the beaten track and thus irresistible to this chaser-down of musical rarities.

My only previous experience of the music of the Polish composers Władysław Żeleński (1837-1921) and Zygmunt Noskowski (1846-1909) had been the former’s concert overture W Tatrach (In the Tatra Mountains) Op. 27 (not to be confused with the slightly better known, or less unknown, symphonic poem of the same title by Vítězslav Novák) and Noskowski’s symphonic poem Step (The Steppe) Op. 66, composed in 1870 and 1895 respectively.

In neither Żeleński’s Violin Sonata in F major, Op. 30 of 1879 nor Noskowski’s Violin Sonata in A minor, however, was there much evidence of any pictorial or Polish nationalistic inspiration; indeed both works, particularly in their first movements—out of three in each case—were pretty faithful examples of adherence to the prevailing Germanic academic forms for large-scale instrumental and orchestral music.

While the remarkable Violin Sonata in B minor by Amanda Maier heard at the previous Sunday’s Café Ludwig concert in Costa Mesa perhaps surpasses the Żeleński and Noskowski sonatas in immediacy and concision, the latter are richly melodic and expressively varied, as well as being finely, sometimes challengingly, conceived for the instruments—in places the pianist has to cope with positive shoals of notes, and the violinist with much writing in the highest register.

The two works are most alike in their first movements—sonata structures with repeated expositions in both cases (neither observed here, presumably to keep the recital length within bounds). The Żeleński opens Allegro non troppo with a long theme on violin over portentous repeated chords and then busy figuration on the piano, before descending misterioso to pp depths, above which a long-held high violin note seems to promise a highly contrasted second subject but instead devolves mostly into further elaboration of some of the first subject material.

It was a pity to omit the first movement exposition repeat—if only because it meant the loss of a quite long and elaborate lead-back passage—and the compactness of the development and somewhat truncated recapitulation meant that the whole movement lasted not much more than seven minutes, effectively throwing the work’s “center of gravity” firmly towards the much more extensive finale.

After the amiable Allegretto middle movement—essentially an ABABA scherzo, with the Poco più mosso “trio” sections introduced by some rustically stomping piano chords—the molto sostenuto opening of the finale immediately broadens the expressive range of the whole sonata with a portentous, even tragic, weight that seems to herald a full-scale slow movement.

After some three minutes, however, what proves to have been an  introduction segues suddenly into an Allegro con molto brio that agilely evolves into a large-scale sonata-rondo structure, with fugato elements spicing the mix and a 12-measure call-back to the molto sostenuto opening immediately before the final dash to the finish. Altogether, Żeleński’s Violin Sonata was a real find, played with whole-hearted commitment and skill by the Kayaleh/Blaha duo.

Zygmunt Noskowski’s Violin Sonata in A minor seems to be oddly absent from what are otherwise seemingly comprehensive on-line lists of his works (the one dating I could find was, ambiguously, “before 1875,” making it a very early work in a prolific career), and the fact that one unsympathetic English reviewer of its only recording called the sonata “inflated, overblown, diffuse” made one a little apprehensive that here might be a musical turkey for which not too many thanks would be given.

But no fear—the first movement, after what feels like a brief unison “slow introduction” though the tempo is Allegro con brio from the outset, settles down to a busy, slightly Mendelssohnian main theme before executing a 90˚ turn into a gloriously romantic second subject melody on the violin than inhabits an even more Tchaikovsky/Rachmaninoff sound-world when it is immediately repeated by the piano—octaves surging and leaping in the right hand against rolling arpeggiated chords in the left.

To hear all this for a second time I for one would happily have had this first movement stretched out to the near-quarter-hour needed were the duo to have observed the marked exposition repeat; as it was, though, we got the “big tune” again in all its fulsome splendor due to the young Noskowski’s structural observances leading him to a recapitulation as literal as was that of his older countryman.

Both the second and third movements are in complete contrast to their equivalents in the Żeleński. In place of the latter’s relatively brief, intermezzo-like Allegretto, Noskowski provides an extensive theme with four elaborate and inventively contrasted variations, replete with internal repeats, followed by a coda that returns to the gentle molto andante of the opening theme.

As for the finale, he plunges with the merest preamble into a headlong Prestissimo that the Kayaleh/Blaha duo made into a real moto perpetuo thrill ride, though I suppose with such an extreme marking it could conceivably go even faster. Noskowski can’t resist showing off his academic cred with some fugato writing built into the tumult, and it has to be said that he indulges perhaps once too often his habit of making a rhetorical slowing-down before charging forward again.

Nonetheless, Laurence Kayaleh and Bernadene Blaha thoroughly justified their choice of this rare repertoire for an entire recital rather than cozying audience ears with something more familiar, and it is good news indeed that they are going on to record this pair of almost-forgotten 19th century violin sonatas by two fine Polish composers for Naxos. In the meantime, the present concert can be enjoyed here.


"Second Sundays at Two," Rolling Hills United Methodist Church, Torrance, Sunday, November 13, 2022, 2.00 p.m. 
Images: The performer: Classical Crossroads; the composers: Wikimedia Commons.

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