New review – “Stefan Kisielewski – Piano Pieces” CD

Stefan Kisielewski was a composer who put the motor in motoric. A student at the Warsaw Conservatory when Szymanowski was its vice-chancellor, the young composer’s exposure to the music of Prokofiev seems to have been a musical coup de foudre. Little else can adequately explain the traction of action in his piano music – he remained wedded to ‘the black box’ – or his reproof of the ecstatic or impressionist in music. For Kisielewski it was all about The Scythian Suite or Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. It’s amusing to read in the booklet that the composer’s love of, in his own words ‘ruthless motoric hack-up’, has led to a nervous disavowal of the music recorded here being like that.

But he was certainly a man for the Toccata. To Prokofiev one can add Bartók, perhaps, as part of his DNA. The compositions in this selection are programmed chronologically and range in date from 1939 to 1983. The Danse vive of 1939 is toccata-like barbaro, but wittily voiced, and reconstructed by the composer after its wartime loss. The Prelude and Fugue attests to thorough training in counterpoint – this is post-Regerian not pastiche Baroque procedure. In vibrancy and virtuosity, he comes into his own in the 1943 Toccata, a welter of vehemence but, strangely, and though as we’ve seen he claimed no allegiance to – or interest in – the school of ‘murmuring and rustling impressionism’, there’s a bit of murmur and more than a touch of rustle in the Capriccio rustico of 1951: that is, until the appearance of a Mazur and consequent excitement.

In a sonata even a man as wedded to speed and power needed to relax. The Second Sonata of 1955 – the First was lost in the conflagration of the Warsaw Uprising – sports a particularly dreamy Arcadia in its central movement, its more amorphous paragraphs evidence of a sensual imagination at work. By the Presto finale we are back to overdrive. The 1955 Suite, strongly predicated on Baroque dance models, is both heavy booted and also, rather like the sonata’s slow movement, touchingly elusive. The Three Stormy Scenes, the last of the pieces here, are brief pianistic tone poems. They offer a battering and repeating layer of toccata drama as well as, in the last of the tableaux, a pulsing Funeral March that hearkens back to the old nineteenth-century truths.

Magdalena Lisak is the intrepid interpreter who must mediate between the composer’s overwhelming predilection for vitesse and brook-no-argument vehemence and his rarer introspective moments. She does so with admirable sang-froid and technical aplomb. And she’s been given a good recording too. The cover photograph shows a heavy-lidded, rather melancholic composer; the back a wide-mouthed joker laughing uproariously. One coin, two sides.

Jonathan Woolf, MusicWeb International, 2017