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Mieczysław KARŁOWICZ (1876-1909)
Powracające fale (Returning waves), op.9 (1904) [24:12]
Smutna opowieść (Preludia do wieczności) (A sorrowful tale (preludes to eternity)), op.13 (1908) [11:00]
Odwieczne pieśni (Eternal songs), op.10 (1906) [28:01]: (1. Pieśn o wiekuistej tęsknocie (Song of everlasting yearning) (10:51); 2. Pieśn o miłości i o śmierci (Song of love and death) [11:37]; 3. Pieśn o wszechbycie (Song of eternal being) [5:33])
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra/Antoni Wit
rec. Wellington Town Hall, Wellington, New Zealand, 11-13 July 2006
NAXOS 8.570295 [63:13]

Experience Classicsonline

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 Ian Lace so I will not repeat it here. 

The 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. 

The 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. 

The 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. 

Eternal songs is 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”. 

The 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. 

The 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). 

You 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. 

One 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.

Rob Maynard


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