Distinct from other works thanks to its extremely rich melodic imagination, its grand and expressive themes allude to Polish folk music, even though the composer did not use any genuine folklore.
The creation of Polish Fantasy originally titled "Fantaisie polonaise sur des thèmes originaux," came about in Ignacy Jan Paderewski's height of popularity as a piano virtuoso. A student of the famed Teodor Leszetycki, Paderewski made his debut in Vienna in 1887. A concert in Paris a year later kicked off his international career. In 1890 he played concerts in England, including one in front of Queen Victoria. In 1891 he went for his first tour of the United States. He came back to the US after two years. Together with his son and his family Paderewski left for Normandy in July 1893, and there in a town named Yport he soon composed the Polish Fantasy, which he dedicated to Princess Rachel de Brancovan.
The premiere of the work took place during a festival in Norwich on October 4th that same year. The solo part was played by Paderewski himself, and the orchestra was conducted by Alberto Randegger. Two years later, in June 1895 the piece was played for the first time in Warsaw during one of the concerts in the Dolina Szwajcarska / Swiss Valley garden. It was interpreted by Henryk Melcer and accompanied by the orchestra conducted by Zygmunt Noskowski.
Fantasy is a work distinct from others thanks to its extremely rich melodic imagination: grand, expressive themes allude to Polish folk music, even though the composer did not use any quotations from genuine folklore. The almost thirty-minute long work has a one-piece structure, nonetheless the division into four passages linked by the mazurka leitmotif is clear. The melodic material presented at the beginning, in the second part takes on the features of a mazurka, in the third part of a lyric, to be reinterpreted as a lively cracovienne in the finale. The virtuoso solo part of the piano is accompanied by a colourful, stunning instrumentation.
Polish Fantasy, next to the Piano Concert in A Minor, is recognised as one of the most popular works in Polish piano literature. Paderewski repeatedly played this piece during his tours through various parts of the world. In 1895, after his concerts in New York and Philadelphia critics from prime newspapers emphasised that the composition not only evoked Polish folklore, but was also a symbol of the whole nation, reminding everybody about its existence. A critic from "Philadelphia Inquirer" wrote:
"You can still hear the voice of the dwellers of the beautiful Polish lands. They dance no to the beat of the serious minuet, they are not dressed in lace and silk, they do not bend in courtly bows, and they do not exchange courtesies either. They are clad in peasant clothes, the hard day's toil is over, the violin plays, and they spin, sway, and glide in jumps, skilfully stamping their feet to the beat of the music, which expresses their simple and modest joys. [...] There is a melody which emanates sorrow in the slow passage. For the listener it feels like a requiem for the composer's homeland's dead past, a requiem for its bygone glory." (Quote from Andrzej Piber "Droga do sławy. Ignacy Paderewski w latach 1860-1902", Państwowy Instytut Wydawniczy, Warszawa 1982, p. 281.)
Polish Fantasy was part of the repertoire of many famous pianists and orchestras around the world. One of the first phonographic recordings of the work was made by Henryk Sztompka with The Symphonic Orchestra of the National Philharmonic, conducted by Zbigniew Chwedczuk, and was published as an LP by Polskie Nagrania (SX2106). More recently the work interpreted by Karol Radziwonowicz and Polish Radio National Symphony Orchestra in Katowice, conducted by Antoni Wit, was published in CD format (Polskie Nagrania PNCD105); along with the interpretations by Janina Fialkowska with the same orchestra (Naxos 8.554020); Regina Smendzianka and The Symphony Orchestra of the Krakow Philharmonic, conducted by Roland Bader (Koch Schwann 3-1145-2); Earl Wild and London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Arthur Fiedler (Ivory Classics IC 77003); Felicja Blumental with Innsbruck Symphony Orchestra and Robert Wagner as conductor (Brana Records BR0028); Ewa Kupiec and Radio Sinfonie-Orchester Frankfurt directed by Hugh Wolff (Koch Schwann 36550-2); as well as interpreted by Ian Hobson with Sinfonia Varsovia, conducted by Jerzy Maksymiuk (Polskie Radio PRCD141).
Author: Anna Iwanicka-Nijakowska, July 2010.
Translation by: Helena Chmielewska-Szlajfer, July 2010.