In 19th-century Poland, composers faced a real dilemma. The country had been partitioned by Russia, Prussia and Austria, super-powers with a vested interest in keeping nationalistic music firmly out of the public domain. That left
 you two options. The first was 
to become a composer-virtuoso (the path taken by Paderewski along the way to becoming Polish Prime Minister) so you might be able to export your music to an international audience. Juliusz Zarębski (1854-85), complete with flamboyant shock of hair, was one such showman, gaining a European reputation for his performances on a double keyboard piano. The other possibility was to stay at home and teach, the sedate choice of Władysław Żeleński (1837-1921). These two gentlemen of two roads diverg’d are the subjects of this fascinating disc from Hyperion.

Zarębski’s Piano Quintet, a 40-minute work as rich in melody as it is strong on motivic development, was heard in Martha Argerich’s impassioned 2011 Lugano Festival release. The composer was clearly something of an innovator, employing bold tonal shifts and quirky rhythmic devices. The 
 Żeleński Piano Quartet is entirely new to CD but should make many friends on this showing: as tuneful as the Zarębski but with an added layer of yearning wistfulness and a delicious folk tang.

British pianist Jonathan Plowright has become something of a specialist in Romantic Polish repertoire after a series of fine recordings including his masterly Homage to Paderewski. He is joined here by the Warsaw-based Szymanowski Quartet, who have this music in their blood. These pitch-perfect performances should go a long way to rehabilitating some fine music. Oh, and by the way, they’re pronounced “Zarempski” and “Zhelainski” should you wish to drop them into after-dinner conversation…

Read our new magazine online