With the Challenge Classics release Polish Piano Trios, Altenberg Trio Wien digs into an area of the modern and contemporary repertoire practically unknown outside of Poland. Polish composer Artur Malawski came to prominence in the years following World War II and played a crucial role in bringing Polish composition up to speed with developments elsewhere in Europe, both as a teacher and as President of the Polish Section of the ISCM. Among his students were Krzysztof Penderecki and Boguslaw Schaeffer, the latter authoring a key monograph on Malawski's work. Malawski's Piano Trio in C sharp minor (1953) shares with Malawski's slightly younger contemporary an interest in Bartók's formal schemes and driving rhythms, but it also betrays awareness of Schoenberg's pre-serial sound: blindfolded, certain passages might lead even an especially knowledgeable listener to conclude that this is Schoenberg. Given the lengthy stretches of propulsive rhythm, the Trio manages to be a tad more exciting than Schoenberg usually is; however, the comparison is apt only in the first two movements, as in its last parts the Trio gradually works its way into a more post-romantic idiom, though the mood is more of reconciliation than compromise. It is a startling work that definitely whets both curiosity and an appetite for more Malawski. Alas, one major reason we have not heard of him is his early death; he passed away one year before Lutoslawski premiered his Funeral Music (1958), a touchstone event in contemporary Polish music.
Krysztof Meyer represents an entirely different era and point of view from Malawski; born during World War II, Meyer came to prominence in the 1960s, studying with both Penderecki and Nadia Boulanger. Meyer is also renowned as the author of an important study on Dmitry Shostakovich, whom he met in Shostakovich's last years. While Meyer made his early reputation as a proponent of the avant-garde, like Penderecki he has moved toward incorporating non-traditional techniques into an expanded rethinking of conventional forms and thematic development. Meyer's Piano Trio (1980) is on the early edge of that transition and is viewed as one of his finest achievements; beginning with a crashing cluster chord, the various strands of the Trio gradually unravel to reveal a landscape both passionate and desolate. While the overall stylistic curve of the work reveals some kinship with early modernism -- one aspect it does share with the Malawski -- it is also reminiscent of some of the darker chamber music of Shostakovich and demonstrates a better absorption of that influence than is commonly seen with some of Meyer's contemporaries.
What the Altenberg Trio Wien has done here is locate a vein with the literature, find the best within it and play the music as well as it can be played; the racing, hair-raising polyphony of the Malawski and bizarre ensemble effects in the Meyer are handled with equal efficiency. Challenge's recording is immediate and as inside the music as one could imagine, a great help in digesting complex chamber works such as these. For those interested in currents of development within European chamber music that push the envelope yet illuminate aspects of the grand tradition held in such quarters, Challenge Classics' Polish Piano Trios certainly delivers the goods, brilliantly adhering to best practices in regard to the very notion of "challenge."