The name of Józef Nowakowski will bring no more than stunned incomprehension to most; he was a Polish composer, teacher, and concert artist in the early 19th century and was a close friend to Frédéric Chopin, working as a Warsaw-based emissary between Chopin and his family when Chopin was living in Paris. He was a decade older than Chopin and lived a decade longer, producing -- in spite of his heavy teaching schedule -- over 200 works. Many are lost, but in 2004 musicologist Andrzej Wróbel discovered the published parts to Nowakowski's Piano Quintet, Op. 17 (1833), in the Staatsbibliothek in Berlin, and the Vienna Piano Quintet provides the ultra-rare work's recording premiere on this Camerata release.
It is a long quintet -- 40 minutes -- in an ambitious, early Romantic style that recalls not Chopin but Beethoven and especially Schubert. This whole album is beautifully recorded and the Vienna Piano Quintet plays Nowakowski's Piano Quintet as though it is one the players have known all of their lives. And in a way, this is true, as it is modeled after Schubert's "Trout" Quintet, though it is one as resident in an alternate universe and, moreover, with a Polish accent. However, Nowakowski's Piano Quintet is every bit as appealing; it has a luscious, if somewhat sentimental, slow movement and a cracking, high-spirited rondo finale. The balance of the program is given to later, equally little-known 19th century Polish composers. Zygmunt Noskowski came from a completely different end of the spectrum in regard to Chopin, as he was not an admirer. Noskowski belonged to a family that held close ties to Polish Messianist philosopher Andrzej Towianski, whose work had been disavowed by the ever-skeptical Chopin. Noskowski's Polonaise Elegiac, heard here in a version for double bass and piano, is very brief and in that time doesn't seem to leave much of an impression. However, the fragmentary Piano Sextet in E minor and Polonaise in A flat major for the same forces by juvenile Polish composer Antoni Stolpe are eye-opening wonders. Stolpe died at age 21 from a case of the common cold, and his music is rather rough at the edges; the piano drives the first movement of the Sextet and the Polonaise is rife with tasteless, unnecessary flourishes. Nevertheless, his music has an appealing pan-Europeanism about it, and even contemporary reviews note that his work was a blend of French and German romantic style, and while his scoring style must have collected its fair share of blue-penciled comments from his professors, Stolpe was a genuine talent. This Camerata disc is highly recommended for those who appreciate the journey amid lesser known romantics, and anyone who appreciates the "Trout" Quintet will get something out of the Nowakowski work.