This disc’s arrival gave me an excuse to go back and listen again
to some earlier recordings of Karłowicz’s music that appeared
on the Chandos label a few years ago. Those well-regarded accounts
by the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra under Yan Pascal Tortelier (vol.
1) and Gianandrea Noseda (vols.
2 and 3) did a great deal to bring the composer to widespread
attention. But, given its enterprising knack of discovering forgotten
musical byways, the Naxos label would surely, in any case, have
got around to exploring Karłowicz’s oeuvre sooner or later.
truth, there is not actually a great deal of music to uncover.
The list of Karłowicz’s works goes no higher than op.14
Epizod na maskaradzie, of which less than 500
bars had been completed by the time of his unexpected death.
So, as with many other composers throughout history, we are
left with a mere torso of musical achievement to judge on its
own merits while simultaneously – with greater or lesser leaps
of faith – speculating on the endlessly fascinating fantasy
of “what might have been…”.
can say, though, with some certainty that Karłowicz’s music
is very much of its time and place - Poland in the late 19th
and early 20th centuries, when the most important
musical trends were being set by composers of the “Young Poland”
movement. Probably too loosely associated to be considered a
“school”, they included Fitelberg (b. 1879), Szymanowski (b.1882)
and Różycki (b.1884). With music characterised by subjective,
often impressionistic emotional expression and a strong appreciation
of the natural world, they formed a distinct national – but
in many ways quite typical - branch of the wider European fin-de-siècle
culture closely associated with such late Romantic “decadent”
composers as Alexander Scriabin (The Poem of Ecstasy)
and pre-1914 Richard Strauss (Salomé).
Karłowicz was not simply a “Young Poland” composer and
more diverse influences are clearly apparent in his compositions.
Classical Editor Rob Barnett suggested some key influences when
he wrote elsewhere
on this site that Karłowicz “can best be thought of as
a contemplative Polish Tchaikovsky… [H]is music is mixed with
brooding elements from Rachmaninov and early Miaskovsky.” In
his 2002 notes for the first Chandos disc, Alistair Wightman
spread the net even more widely, however, looking west as well
as east to suggest reflections of Bruckner, Grieg, Strauss,
Tchaikovsky and Wagner - though by the time he came to write
the notes for the follow-up disc in 2004 Bruckner had disappeared.
I would most definitely add the name of Scriabin to those earlier
fact, although the surprisingly large number of MusicWeb International
reviews of this composer’s music may not always agree on the
influences behind it, they are virtually unanimous – and absolutely
spot-on - in consistently characterising it by such adjectives
as “dark”, “brooding” and “gloomy”. All the works contained
on this new disc certainly have deep and significant elements
of introspection at their heart.
enough, Karłowicz himself was conscious of his own gloomy
approach. Of the Lithuanian Rhapsody, he stated that
“I tried to pour into it all the grief, sadness and eternal
chains of this people whose songs had filled my childhood”.
Thus, his own words confirm that his idiom offers a very different,
far more soulful take on Eastern European peasant life from,
for example, such roughly contemporaneous equivalents as Enescu’s
popular and jolly Romanian Rhapsody no.1 and the rumbustious
Rhapsody on Ukrainian Themes by Liapunov.
was undeniably a very skilled composer but one who, because
of his small output and its relative unfamiliarity, has failed
to establish himself as a widely-accepted musical reference
point. We tend to listen to his music and say to ourselves “Ah,
yes – Tchaikovsky here… A bit of Rachmaninov there…”. We do
not, perhaps sadly, hear a composition written by someone
else and say “Oh, yes, that phrase reminds me of Karłowicz…”.
new disc offers us three of the six symphonic poems that many
critics consider to be the composer’s greatest achievement.
All previously appeared on the Chandos discs as well as on a
set from Dux that has particular claims to authoritative
status. The fact that the Naxos issue is billed as a first volume
presumably indicates an intention to issue the remaining three
symphonic poems in due course.
subject matter of these works is, as is so often the way with
Eastern European composers, somewhat bizarre or even macabre.
In the case of Stanisław i Anna Oświecimowie,
it is positively ludicrous, in that we are supposed to accept
the fanciful notion that the no less than Pope himself has presented
the eponymous siblings with a dispensation to permit their incestuous
Antoni Wit and the Warsaw Philharmonic have, of course, recorded
for Naxos before. My colleague Tony Haywood chose their recording
of Mahler’s Symphony of a Thousand as one of his MusicWeb
International discs of the year in 2006 and, while Karłowicz’s
symphonic poems may not require such gargantuan resources, the
performances here are quite equally assured. Perhaps understandably,
the Warsaw orchestra sounds more at home in this repertoire
than their counterparts in Manchester’s BBC Philharmonic, while
Wit’s long experience in presenting Polish music to the wider
world means that he gives us an idiomatic performance that sounds
both completely natural to him and utterly authoritative.
find the sound on the Naxos disc preferable to the rather reverberant
ambiance inhabited by the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra on the
Chandos discs. The Polish players, in contrast, have been recorded
at a slightly higher level and, set as they are within a dryer
acoustic, have a far more immediate and realistic impact.
Whitehouse has penned some useful notes for the CD booklet.
They will certainly prove a good introduction to the many inquisitive
purchasers who will, I hope, be attracted at this bargain price
to explore Mieczysław Karłowicz’s music.