This is the second volume of Naxos’s survey of the six symphonic poems taking
up the final opus numbers, 9-14, of Karłowicz’s small but
impressive musical output. Background information about the composer
may be found in my
own review of the first volume as well as that by my colleague
Lace so I will not repeat it here.
stories and themes behind the music are once again on the gloomy
side, if not downright macabre. Returning waves was retrospectively
linked by the composer, just before his own death, to the idea
of a rejected lover’s suicide. Self-inflicted death is also
the theme of A sorrowful tale: indeed, Karłowicz’s
original intention was that the climax of the piece would be
capped in performance by a real gunshot (though he ultimately
conceded that a stroke on a tam-tam might be a more practical
substitute!) And, with “yearning” and “love and death” featuring
in the titles of two of the three sections of Eternal songs,
you’ll gather that the composer wasn’t exactly the life and
soul of the party. Richard Whitehouse’s booklet essay notes,
in passing, some speculation that Karłowicz’s death in
mountain accident may actually have a case of suicide.
earliest work of all on the disc, Returning waves op.9,
is, though possibly the least innovative and challenging, arguably
the most interesting as it is musically quite distinct from
the others here. The influence of Tchaikovsky is at its most
obvious and for once Karłowicz seems to be putting more
emphasis on melody than on pure atmospherics and mood. It is
almost as though he yet to fully establish his more characteristic
introspective, brooding style and, as a result, Returning
waves emerges as the most obviously accessible and appealing
of all six symphonic poems.
contrast with the second piece on the disc, A sorrowful tale
(preludes to eternity), is marked. The writing here is quite
impressionistic and much less obviously melodic. I listened
to this with eyes closed and, probably thanks to the music’s
orchestration (with lots going on in the lower registers) and
rhythmic patterns, the image that actually popped into my own
head was that of the depths of the ocean. And given, I guess,
that the never-ending sea really is probably the closest thing
to “eternity” that we have on our planet, I think Karłowicz
has done pretty well in managing to put such an appropriate
picture into my mind.
the only one of the six symphonic poems to be divided up into
specific sections – or “songs” as the composer designates them.
The first – Song of everlasting yearning – is again stronger
on atmosphere than in memorable melody. There are plenty of
musical phrases that rise up only to fall away again (is real-life
“yearning” like that?) but this time Karłowicz is less
successful in creating anything more than an abstract picture.
I suspect that his inclination towards such pure musical mood-setting
is what contemporary critics were getting at when they dismissed
many of his compositions as “musical chaos”.
second “song” – Song of love and death – is, from the
outset, more obviously lyrical in intent, presumably as it is
intended as a more overt depiction of “love”. There are, too,
several passages (from about 4:30
onwards, for instance) where Karłowicz writes in an atypically
excitable manner, before he embarks on a final section (presumably
now changing the focus to “death” - from about 6:40 onwards) that is very reminiscent of Richard
Strauss in full valedictory mode. It has to be said that morbid
thoughts do seem to bring out his best work.
final “song” – Song of eternal being - continues in rich
Straussian mode. An unusually – for Karłowicz! – vigorous
opening quickly subsides into pulsating phrases that underpin
the usual brooding material, before more vigorous, thrusting
themes enter to round everything off in a manner that kept reminding
me of the pompous glitter of Strauss’s Festliches Präludium
(which the Polish composer’s piece actually predates
by five years).
may gather, from the greater note of enthusiasm in this review,
that I enjoyed volume 2 in this series rather more than its
predecessor. That, I think, is entirely due to the wider range
of musical idioms on display, offering a somewhat more varied
and rounded impression of Karłowicz’s style. The performances
here – utilising a different and non-Polish orchestra though
retaining the authoritative services of Antoni Wit as conductor
– do full justice to the music and Tim Handley has done a first
class job with the engineering, too.
final point, though... I do wish that the Naxos design team had paid a little more attention
to the musical oeuvre that they were packaging. It looks
here as if some bright spark saw that Karłowicz was a Pole
and just looked for a superficial picture from the Polish Tourist
Board, all blue skies and grassy swards (and one of the ugliest
buildings I’ve seen in quite some time). That visual image is
completely at odds with this markedly dour, introspective music
and, as a sad result, the jewel case just looks completely out
of place alongside the DVD player while such clearly un-superficial
music is emerging from the loudspeakers.