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Mieczysław KARŁOWICZ (1876-1909)
Symphonic Poems Vol. 1

Stanisław i Anna Oświecimowie, op.12 (1907) [22:43]
Rapsodia litewska (Lithuanian Rhapsody), op.11 (1906) [19:36]
Epizod na maskaradzie (Episode at a Masquerade), op.14 (1908-1909) [28:22]
Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra/Antoni Wit
rec. Warsaw Philharmonic Hall, Warsaw, Poland, 13-16 November 2006 (op.12 and op.14) and 30 November 2006 (op.11)
NAXOS 8.570452 [70:41]
Experience Classicsonline

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. 

In 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…”. 

One 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).

But 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 lists. 

In 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. 

Interestingly 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. 

Karłowicz 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…”. 

This 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 2-disc 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. 

The 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 sexual relationship! 

Polish-born 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. 

I 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. 

Richard 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.

Rob Maynard



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