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Mieczysław KARŁOWICZ (1876-1909)
Violin Concerto in A major Op. 8 (1903) [27.26]
Eternal Songs - symphonic poem Op. 10 (1907) [36.09]
Stanisław and Anna Oświeczim - symphonic poem Op. 12 [22.34]
Konstanty Andrzej Kulka (violin)
Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra/Kazimierz Kord
rec. Warsaw Philharmonic Concert Hall, Oct (Op.8), Nov (Opp. 10, 12) 1999. DDD
CD ACCORD ACD 071-2 [76.32]

The contrast between the tuneful game-play of the light romantic Violin Concerto and the earnestness and despair of the two symphonic poems could hardly be more stark. The poems are torrid - finding their life-spring in the Tchaikovsky of Francesca da Rimini and the Sixth Symphony and in the exaltation of high places that inspired Delius, Novak and Fibich.

Kulka and Kord have pleasant sport with the Violin Concerto which cuts a stylish dash but remains light of heart. This is music that is pleasingly rounded and occupies a folk serenade tradition with the Glazunov, de Boeck, Ivanovs and Tchaikovsky concertos stretching back to Bruch. Its themes are memorable superior for example to anything in the Saint-Saëns concertos if not to Caprice Andalou, Havanaise and Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso. Amongst the three versions I have heard there is little to choose. There is a rare Polish CD version where the soloist is Wanda Wilkomirska which I have not heard. I do however have Kulka's earlier 1979 recording where the conductor was Rowicki. That is on a long gone Olympia CD (OCD304). It still sounds rather good if thinner than the very rich balance to be had on this CD Accord. Kulka's reading seems pretty much unchanged. Thanks to the generosity of one of my net contacts I have heard a CDR of CDM LDC 278 1088 in which Kaja Danczowska (who plays the two Szymanowski concertos on CD Accord ACD 026) plays the work with the Polish Radio Cracow orchestra conducted by Antoni Wit (another veteran of EMI's Szymanowski centenary project in 1981-2) and that is certainly impressive. Kulka is easily recommendable so if you like the Tchaikovsky and the Bruch then don’t hesitate.

The theme near the start of Stanisław and Anna Oświeczim is surely a thinly-veiled recollection of the grandiloquent melody from the first movement and peroration of the Violin Concerto. There are quilted heavy textures, damasks from which the French horns surge and punch outwards and upwards at climactic moments - Strauss and Bax echoes abound. The updraft of the opening suggests Elgar’s Froissart and Szymanowski’s Concert Overture. The piece ends in a whispered rustling bed of strings with the regretful murmur of woodwind to refer back to the tragedy.

There are several commercial recordings of Eternal Songs a triptych of poems in the form of a rhapsodic symphony. Jerzy Salwarowski’s version is vibrant but unrefined in sound and with very noticeable hiss. The set is part of a complete 2CD collection of the Karłowicz tone poems with the Silesian State Philharmonic. It is on the Dux label which has recently secured a U.S. distributor. Salwarowski takes things even quicker than Stanislaw Wislocki whose 1965 recording with the Warsaw National Symphony was last available on a long-gone Olympia OCD 307. Wislocki makes more of the Song of Love and Death with its parallels with Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony. For all of its AAD provenance the hiss levels are well tamed by comparison with the Dux set. Technically speaking the best sounding of all is the latest from Chandos issued in 2002 (CHAN 9986) where the BBC Phil are conducted by Yan Pascal Tortelier. Chandos even make some sort of clarity out of the brusque attitudinising of the start of The Song of Eternal Being. Kord makes a fine interpreter of the whole piece with more restlessness and the sort of darkness invoked by Rachmaninov in The Isle of the Dead, by Glazunov in his Salome music and by Tchaikovsky in Hamlet and parts of Manfred. Kord is certainly a very strong contender if without the out and out missionary zeal Rozhdestvensky brought to a rare radio broadcast he made in 1981 with the Chicago Symphony. Even so listen at 4.40 to those hallooing French Horns of Kord’s Warsaw Orchestra. Hearing this reminds me that I first heard Kord through a radio broadcast in 1977 of Szymanowski’s Second Symphony with the Austrian Radio Symphony Orchestra. The Studio 7 recording by the BBC Phil bests the CD Accord version in audio terms. You pays your money and takes your choice. The couplings all differ (Chandos, Olympia and Dux all match Eternal Songs with Karłowicz’s other tone poems) and certainly to have the splendours of the Violin Concerto matched with the high hills romanticism of Eternal Songs makes for a potent combination.

The disc is generously packed and interpretative and audio values are high. Well worth tracking down for acolytes of hothouse late romanticism.

Rob Barnett

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