Alexandra Nowakowski, soprano
Michał Biel, piano
Release date: 9/2/2022
Executive Producer: Gillian Riesen
Artwork: Emitha LLC
Photography: Kinga Karpati & Daniel Zarewicz
by Karol Szymanowski
1. No. 1 Lecioły zórazie
2. No. 3 Uwoz mamo
3. No. 4 U jeziorecka
4. No. 9 Zarzyjze, kuniu
by Ignacy Paderewski
5. No. 1 Gdy ostatnia róża zwiędła
6. No. 2 Siwy koniu
7. No. 3 Szumi w gaju brzezina
8. No. 4 Chłopca mego mi zabrali
by Ignacy Paderewski
9. No. 1 Polały się łzy
10. No. 2 Piosnka dudarza
by Fryderyk Chopin
11. No. 1 Życzenie
12. No. 16 Piosnka litewska
13. No. 19 Dumka
14. No. 12 Moja pieszczotka
15. No. 10 Wojak
by Stanisław Moniuszko
20. Ja ciebie kocham
by Stanisław Moniuszko
16. Matko już nie ma cię
19. Powiedzcie mi
by Stanisław Moniuszko
22. Pieśń Nai
by Stanisław Moniuszko
“O! Polsko, kraino!” This desperate cry in one of Chopin’s durges is what inspired me to choose “KRAINA” as the title of this album of Polish art song. In Polish literature we often hear this cry to the motherland – we either cry to her or she cries to us. “Kraina” can be literally translated as “land,” but in the Polish language can also be interpreted as “motherland” or “homeland.” In Polish, Poland translates to “Polska” – she is feminine, as is “Kraina.” And there is something distinctly feminine about her, a mother that remains forever in the hearts of her children even if they are forced to leave her.
As a Polish American my motherland has called to me my whole life. I grew up with one foot on American soil and the other on Polish. As a Pole, I wanted to dive deeper into the repertoire of Poland. As an American, I wanted to celebrate a culture that for decades was persecuted and conquered, unable at times to practice their religions or attend school, and least of all, compose music. Due to the war and oppression Poland suffered, its’ music became not so much about celebrating Polish culture, but preserving it. To the naked ear, we may not hear the same complexities in this music as traditional art song repertoire; rather, we hear a culture desperate to hang onto who they were; to their folk songs, to beautiful melodies, and to themes that defined the Polish people during this period in history, war and love. We hear songs that could be sung at home by families with or without musical abilities, like “Dobranoc” from Moniuszko’s “Singing Books for the Home”. Moniuszko is perhaps the most prolific Polish song composer we know of. His seemingly simple melodies exist for a greater purpose - inclusivity. Szymanowski, probably one of the most gifted Polish composers in terms of musical complexity, had a wide variety of influences, including the Middle East, the Mediterranean, and finally Poland itself, all of which you hear in his music. He was also one of the few openly gay Polish composers. Paderewski composed melodies that allow the singer to text-paint to their heart’s desire. And of course, Chopin, the most famous of them all, wrote not just for piano, but also for voice. Although, his songs were mostly written on the corner of napkins for his various lovers, and he never actually intended for them to see the light of day. These vastly different compositional offerings are exactly why Polish music deserves it’s place on the stages of the world, and I am so excited to bring them to you."
- Alexandra Nowakowski
NOTES ON THE ALBUM - by Evan L. Snyder
Settings by Karol Szymanowski (1882-1937)
Based on Kurpian folk songs, collected by Władysław Skierkowski (1886-1941)
Karol Szymanowski was a Polish composer and pianist, mostly known for his orchestral works, whose style often blends his late romantic influences with elements of atonality—to astonishing effect. While his works enjoyed considerable successes during his lifetime, both domestically and on the international stage, there was a considerable drop-off in the performance of his works following his death and World War II. Fortunately, in recent years, his works have seen a considerable resurgence and have championed by some of the world’s most influential conductors, including Sir Simon Rattle, who called Szymanowski “one of the greatest composers of [the 20th] century.”
The four songs included on this album are drawn from a set of 12 Kurpian folk song settings that Szymanowski created in the early 1930s, based on tunes and texts that Władysław Skierkowski had collected and catalogued in the Kurpie region of Poland, to where Skierkowski had fled during World War I. During his time there, he documented an incredible wealth of folksongs from the region, collecting more than a thousand songs between 1913 and his death, in the Soldau concentration camp, in 1941.
Each of the folk song settings included on this album marks a stunning achievement on Szymanowski’s part, all four conveying both text and story with incredible nuance and a remarkable fidelity to the characters they portray. The first track, "Lecioły zórazie,” is marked by a haunting dissonance, which refuses to let the speaker’s simple melody ever cadence, a constantly shifting harmonic ground under the feet of our narrator, who’s world has fallen apart with the loss of their love. “Uwoz mamo,” the second of the settings included on the album (and a personal favorite), is a stunning entreaty, a young girl begging her mother to carefully consider who she will have her marry. Szymanowski begins the setting simply, laying the exquisite melody atop a texture of rising scalar passages. As the song continues, the scales intensify, adding octaves, and eventually seconds, as the melody drives higher, never flagging, the girl imploring her mother for her consideration. The piano seems to be ever-climbing, right to the final note, and the tension of the speaker’s fervor doesn’t release until beyond the ending, in the silence that follows the movement.
The third song, “U jeziorecka,” tells the story of a young girl, refusing the advances of a man who approaches her, alone in the woods at dusk. Szymanowski captures the growing urgency of the girl’s predicament, with a constantly increasing rhythmic intensity in the piano, fueled by the appearance of rapid hoof-beating patterning that marks the man’s arrival. As the man’s intensions become more clear, and his demands, more forceful, the piece reaches a rhythmic climax, with the accompaniment intertwining the hoof-beat pattern, a melodic doubling, and a dramatic alternation of low octaves in the left hand. This gives way to a beautiful pianissimo—the girl defiantly defending her flower crown, a symbol of purity in Polish culture, as the harmony cadences on an open fifth, perhaps leaving the listener less than certain about the young woman’s fate.
“Zarzyjze, kuniu,” the last of the four songs, expresses a profound regret at having let a lover go. The accompaniment plays on the idea of a trodding horse, with its constant eighth note pulse, as the narrator rides steadily along throughout the first two verses. With the arrival of the third verse, however, the speaker hurries the horse toward their former love, and the the eighth notes give way to triplets. As they reach the girl, the horse again slows and the speaker tells their lover of their regrets. As the music fades, and the horse continues onward, hollow open fifths alternate with major thirds, and the piece sounds as if it will end as hopelessly as it started—until, nearly silently, the hollow fifth becomes a final major chord: hope for the speaker’s future.
Songs from Op. 7 and Op.18
Music by Ignacy Jan Paderewski (1860-1941)
Poetry by Adam Asnyk (1801-1847) and Adam Mickiewicz (1798-1855)
Ignacy Jan Paderewski was a Polish concert pianist and composer of considerable renown, but, rather exceptionally for a musician, is better known for his contributions as a Polish politician. After several decades of an illustrious performing career, Paderewski stepped away from his musical appearances in the mid-1910s, to help support efforts related to World War I. He joined the Polish National Committee in Paris, and spoke widely both there and in America, working to garner support for an independent Poland. Following the war, he was appointed as Prime Minister of the newly autonomous nation, and represented his homeland at the Paris Peace Conference, signing the treaty of Versailles.
In 1922, after his time as Prime Minister, he returned to his musical career, touring the United States, where he continued to live until his death nearly twenty years later. Notably, he was given special dispensation by President Roosevelt to be buried temporarily at Arlington Nation Cemetery, where he was to be held in repose until Poland was once again a free democratic nation. His body remained there for more than 50 years, until, following the establishment of the Democratic Republic of Poland, it was finally returned in 1992.
As an international renowned pianist, it likely comes as no surprise that the piano writing in Paderewski’s works is beautifully varied, intuitively shaped, and occasionally rather virtuosic. More impressive still, are the wonderful ways he employs that pianism to serve the text in these song settings. One beautiful example of this is Op. 7, no. 3, “Szumi w gaju brzezina.” The song begins with an alternating whole step triplet figure in the right hand, immediately invoking the breeze that the poem describes. As the song progresses through the third stanza, the triplet figure dies away, as winter arrives and the leaves fall off the birch tree, the wind now soundless without their rustling. In place of the triplet figure, Paderewski employs static chords, richly voiced, with an impressive tenth nearly omnipresent in the left hand (a considerable stretch for most pianists). The stasis continues under the speaker’s sorrowful winter, until the very last line “Zacznie szukać drugiego” (begin to search for another), where the poem suggests the girl may yet find another love. Under these words, Paderewski’s rustling motive returns, because the leaves will regrow with spring, and as the world moves on, so too can the speaker.
Music by Fryderyk Franciszek Chopin (1810-1849)
Poetry by Stefan Witwicki (1801-1847), Ludwik Osiński (1775-1838), Józef Bohdan Zaleski (1802-1886), and Adam Mickiewicz (1798-1855)
For most listeners of classical music, Fryderyk Franciszek Chopin (later Frédéric François Chopin) needs little introduction. Chopin is without question the most famous Polish composer of all time and many of his piano works are among the most beloved pieces of music ever written. His polonaises, preludes, and nocturnes have been heard in concert halls and movie theaters, in video games and on television—his music nearly everywhere imaginable for more than 150 years.
Less known than his solo piano repertoire, certainly, are his songs. Throughout his life Chopin wrote only 19 songs, and only two of those did he publish during his lifetime (“Zyczenie” and “Wojak”). Most of the texts for these songs were by contemporary Polish poets, many of whom Chopin knew personally (including his personal friend Stefan Witwicki, who was responsible for ten of the nineteen texts).
The one notable exception to the contemporaneous Polish origins of these texts is “Piosnka litewska,” the second of the songs included on this album, which is in fact a Lithuanian song text, translated into Polish by Ludwik Osiński. The poem tells the lighthearted story of a young girl, being scolded by her mother for returning home with her “wianek,” her flower crown (and the aforementioned symbol of purity), wet. After her mother dismantles the girl’s attempts at excuses, she admits that she spoke with a young boy in the fields, and that is how her flower crown had, in fact, become damp with dew. Chopin treats the text like a small dramatic scene, with arioso-like writing, a soloistic introduction, and accompanimental patterns like one might expect to see in a Mozart opera. When the music reaches the girl’s confession, Chopin treats the word “wianek” with a fermata and a dramatic fortissimo chord—driving home the importance of the word, before immediately returning to tempo and, almost hurriedly, pushing through “zrosił się na głowie” (became wet with dew).
Stanisław Moniuszko (1819-1872)
Poetry by Victor Hugo (1802-1885), in translation by Radziszewskiego, Stanisław Jachowicz (1796-1857), Adam Asnyk (1838-1897), Jan Czeczot (1796-1847), Jozef Korzeniowski (1857-1924)
Stanisław Moniuszko is often called “the father of Polish Opera.” His operatic works have been compared stylistically to those of Rossini, but Moniuszko frequently invoked Polish dance themes in the works, giving his operas a distinct nationalistic character. Indeed, most of his output was noted for its Polish-ness; his more than 300 songs were published collectively as Śpiewnik Domowy (Domestic Songs), utilizing text by an impressive array of Polish poets. Moniuszko’s work helped to shape both the character and style of Polish music—and survives to the present as some of the most widely influential vocal music to come out of Poland.
Perhaps the best known of all his songs is the album’s penultimate track, “Przaszniczka.” Frequently used in Polish radio and television, the tune has become somewhat of a national icon, even having been chosen as the official bugle call of the city of Łódź—sounding daily at noon from the window of city hall. The piece’s text, a poem by Jan Czeczot, fixates on fate, drawing on the greek mythological image of thread as a metaphor for life. Through Moniuszko’s whirring piano accompaniment, we hear the spinning wheel come to life, a constant cycling under the singer’s urgent tale.
The other songs featured on the album are, though less well-known, each musical gems in their own right. “Matko już nie ma cię,” with its stunning piano intro and beautiful chromaticism, truly epitomizes Moniuszko’s romantic writing, and features the only text by a non-Polish poet in the group (a translation of Victor Hugo’s writing). “Łza,” a beautifully interwoven tapestry of descending lines, perfectly sonifies the image of a single tear, after which the song was named. Perhaps most stunning, despite its simplicity, is “Powiedzcie mi,” with its alternating rocking harmonies, succinctly capturing the duality of the speaker’s frame of mind, longing for their lover, but in agony without him. Lastly, “Piesn nai,” the final song of the album, serves as a fantastic showpiece for soprano and piano, lightheartedly setting a clever and somewhat playful poem by a young Jozef Korzeniowski (later, and better, known as Joseph Conrad)—carrying this collection of Moniuszko’s songs to a exhilarating finish.
Many thanks to Ted Mirecki for sharing his fantastic historical insights on these works and to Alexandra Nowakowski for her wonderful translations, without both of which these notes would not have been possible.