Krzysztof Książek‘s name doesn’t exactly trip off the tongues of Tar Heel natives but his music-making could hardly be more fluent, as he copiously demonstrated in Smedes Parlor on a beautiful Saturday afternoon before a near-capacity audience of enthusiastic patrons of the first annual Ignacy Jan Paderewski Festival.

Why Paderewski? Why in Raleigh? As our colleague William Thomas Walker hinted in his review of the festival’s opening recital, there are many links, including four recitals played in what is now called the Triangle (the last of which formed the initial offering of the several ongoing series that now constitute Duke Performances) and the fact that Mme. Paderewska’s secretary was a long-time Raleigh resident whose home was graced by a piano, selected, signed, and sent to her in the mid-’20s by the pianist himself – an instrument still in the capital, still in daily use.*

For details of all these things, see the festival’s extensive website, where a film of Paderewski and much, much more may be savored.**

Or one could have attended the festival’s opening program, an in-depth illustrated lecture at the City of Raleigh Museum by A. Mark Fountain II, president and one presumes organizer-in-chief of the proceedings. He spoke with authority and was appropriately be-medaled in his role as Honorary Consul of the Republic of Poland; the talk reflected his deep scholarship and surely fascinated all present, not least because he so nimbly clarified the often-cloudy broth of central European political (and military) conflicts since the early part of the 18th century. (There’s more of that at the website, too.)

The recital under discussion here was preceded by a lecture that centered on Paris, where Poles like Chopin and later Paderewski (and most of the literati and glitterati of the rest of Europe) congregated at one time or another. The speaker was Adam Wibrowski, who now hails from Paris and who serves as the festival’s artistic director. He and Fountain put even the recital venue – Smedes Parlor – in context, noting it was built in 1839 and was typical of the rooms in which Chopin, Paderewski, and other artists played – and in addition its namesake(s), whose portraits grace the walls of the place, were born in the year of Chopin’s birth. (The place positively oozes history.)

But the main event was Książek’s recital, which encompassed music by Mozart, Chopin, and Paderewski. The 20-something artist, bearing a mop of hair, is a no-nonsense player who largely eschews mannerisms too many of our conservatory-produced artists adopt too early in their careers. Instead he came out, bowed quickly, took his seat, and began with a fairly obscure set of eight variations by Mozart on “Come un agnello” by Giuseppe Sarti*** – the aria also famously quoted by Mozart at the end of Don Giovanni. One might have wondered why this piece was chosen, but the reason was to become clear at the start of the program’s second half.

There followed the first of two large groups of music by Chopin: a nocturne (F-sharp minor, Op. 48/2), two etudes (E-minor, Op. 25/5, and F, Op. 10/8), and the big Fantasia (F minor. Op. 49). These performances were revelatory in terms of the fresh insight the artist brought to them. The dynamics exceeded what we believe Chopin may have projected in his own programs (although admittedly we have only written reports of his on-stage restraint on which to base this assumption). These were very clean readings (all from memory), relatively lightly pedaled, but constantly alive with carefully-controlled infusions of interpretive life that in turn brought the music to vivid life as if emerging from the printed pages for the first time.

There was to be lots more of this in the second half of the recital, as Książek returned to Chopin for three mazurkas (in G, A-flat, and C-sharp minor, constituting all of Op. 50), the “Tragic” Polonaise (in F-sharp minor, Op. 44), and the A-Flat Major Waltz (Op. 42). In all these, too, the performance hallmarks embraced the same levels of technical mastery displayed in the first half plus the artist’s keen interpretive insight – insight rarely experienced in players so early in their professional careers. (Surely we will hear more of this pianist!)

But the second half had begun with a wonderful set of variations by Paderewski (in A, Op. 16, No. 3 – part of a series of seven pieces lumped together under one cover). These seemed to pick up where those opening variations by Mozart had left off. As a composer, Paderewski was no slouch, and of course he knew his way around the keyboard; this set of ever-increasingly-elaborate and complex variations on what begins with a fairly simple and sentimental little tune ultimately proved to be one of the afternoon’s most dazzling renditions.

There was more majesty, shrouded in a degree of mystery, in the first of two encores – a short, dark fantasy by Paderewski himself (presumably the Krakowiak, WoO, from 1884). This was followed by another Chopin nocturne, after which the artist returned no more to the keyboard.

When the second annual festival again graces platforms in Raleigh, here’s hoping Krzysztof Książek is again a prominent presence.

The festival continues Nov. 16 with a matinee concert at the N.C. Museum of Art. For details, see the sidebar.

*The instrument is currently owned by the festival’s president and his spouse, pianist Brenda Bruce.

**The essential book for readers wishing to explore Paderewski’s local connections is by Mary Lee McMillan (his wife’s secretary) with Ruth Dorval Jones, a volume published in 1972 under the title my helenka (Durham: Moore Publishing, 1972). Copies turn up frequently at used book stores hereabouts and may also be obtained from the usual online sources.

And while on the subject, there’s a handy recap of information about the pianist’s recordings here that notes, among other things, the best single-source compilation available now, on Naxos (but bearing a number different from the one shown therein). This set is not available domestically, due to our arcane copyright laws, but it may be readily obtained from offshore companies, of which I particularly recommend MDT.

***Its source is the otherwise completely-forgotten Sarti opera Fra i due litiganti il terzo gode.