> KARLOWICZ Stalnislaw and Anna Oswiecim [JQ]: Classical CD Reviews- Sept 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Mieczysław KARŁOWICZ (1876-1909)
Eternal Songs, Op. 10 (1906) [26’57"]
Stanisław and Anna Oswiecim, (1907) Op. 12 [22’18"]
Lithuanian Rhapsody, Op. 11 (1906) [17’13"]
BBC Philharmonic Orchestra/Yan Pascal Tortelier
Recorded in Studio 7, New Broadcasting House, Manchester; 13-14 December 2001
CHANDOS CHAN 9986 [66’41"]


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This new Chandos CD is notable on several counts. It is the 100th recording by the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra for the label. It appears just as Yan Pascal Tortelier steps down after a very successful decade as the orchestra’s Principal Conductor. Last, but by no means least, it makes available three important orchestral works by a neglected Polish composer.

Mieczysław Karłowicz was born in Lithuania in 1876. Initially he trained as a violinist but he devoted himself to composition after going to Berlin for further studies in 1895. His composing career thus spanned a mere fourteen years before his tragically premature death in a skiing accident. However, in that time he had managed to assemble a portfolio of works which included a symphony, a violin concerto, songs and six symphonic poems. The symphonic poems were all written between 1903 and 1908 and Tortelier has chosen to record three of them here.

Eternal Songs was the second of Karłowicz’s compositions in this genre. It dates from 1906 and is in three movements. The music does not illustrate a story. Rather, like Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra, it is inspired by philosophy. As Alistair Wightman avers in his notes: "there seems little doubt that the work depicts Nirvana-like extinction of the self through the universe, reflecting the impact both of Schopenhauer’s philosophy and of mystical experiences enjoyed by the composer in the Tatra Mountains." The three movements are entitled ‘Song of Everlasting Yearning’; ‘Song of Love and Death’; and ‘Song of Eternal Being’.

With titles such as those you might well expect that the music would be predominantly in, what Wightman aptly terms, a "characteristically melancholy, late-romantic idiom" and you would be right. The first movement is in an arch form with brooding music, heard at the outset on strings and wind, encasing a brief, impassioned climax, dominated by the brass. The second movement begins with a memorable string melody but once again the emotions soon start to boil in anticipation of another huge climax. This gives way to a lovely, consolatory passage which is interrupted by a strong, heroic episode before a serene close. The first two movements have been mainly slow in tempo. The final one is much more vigorous and provides a welcome contrast. Throughout, the orchestration is very full but it is not excessive and, anyway, Tortelier balances his forces astutely so as to ensure as much clarity of texture as possible.

Stanisław and Anna Oswiecim is a narrative piece and possibly because of this it strikes me as being the best music on the disc. Composed in 1907, it tells the tale of a brother and sister’s incestuous love affair. The story is based on a seventieth-century legend and Karłowicz described it as a “Polish travesty of Romeo and Juliet.” The opening presents themes for each lover, Anna being represented by an extended, tender melody which we first hear on the oboe (Track 4, 2’04”). Karłowicz then illustrates their romance at some length in suitably passionate music. In the legend Stanisław eventually journeys to Rome to seek the Pope’s approval for their union. Somehow he succeeds in persuading the Pope but, inevitably, on his return he finds his sister dead, a moment which the music graphically portrays (Track 4, from 13’39"). The piece then culminates in an intense and highly charged funeral elegy. This is a powerful and vivid piece which is clearly the product of a fertile musical imagination.

Lithuanian Rhapsody (1906) is very different from its two companions. It is a lighter piece and is based on Lithuanian folk melodies. It is fairly simple in structure, consisting of five short, continuous sections derived from four folksongs. Inevitably, perhaps, it is the most overtly Slavic music on the disc. It is engaging and enjoyable and its inclusion represents intelligent programme planning on someone’s part as it shows us a different side to Karłowicz’s musical persona.

Yan Pascal Tortelier directs powerful, committed performances of all three works and his BBC players respond splendidly, living up to the high standards which they have achieved pretty consistently with him during the last ten years. The recorded sound is excellent: full and detailed. There are good notes by Alistair Wightman, the author of a Scolar/Ashgate book about the composer.

May I drop a couple of hints to Chandos? I’d like to hear more of Karłowicz’s music (the other three symphonic poems, perhaps?) Secondly, though Yan Pascal Tortelier will no longer be at the head of the BBC Philharmonic I hope that he will be regularly reunited with them in the recording studio in the future.

This fine CD is yet another enterprising release from Chandos and it provides a fascinating introduction to an unfamiliar composer. I recommend it confidently.

John Quinn

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