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Mieczysław KARŁOWICZ (1876-1909)
Symphony in E minor Rebirth Op. 7 (?1900-1902) [44:04]
Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra/Jerzy Salwarowski
rec. December 2004, Warsaw Philharmonic Concert Hall, Warsaw, Poland
DUX 0656 [44:04]
Experience Classicsonline

Mieczysław – who? I hear you ask. As well you might, because until a few years ago this Polish composer’s work remained largely unknown and unrecorded. That’s all changed recently; Ian Lace declared Naxos’s first volume of symphonic poems a late-Romantic ‘treasure trove – see review – and Rob Barnett has welcomed Gianandrea Noseda’s recording of the ‘Rebirth’ symphony and other orchestral pieces (see review). Not surprisingly the Polish label Dux is promoting this composer, although I do feel that this review disc is very poor value at just over 44 minutes. Sensibly the Noseda recording Chandos coupled the symphony with several other pieces, making for a much more substantial disc all-round.

Karłowicz, who was born in Lithuania, spent much of his life in Germany before coming to rest in Warsaw. He was hardly a prolific composer, but then he died when he was just 32, buried under an avalanche in the Tatra Mountains. Stylistically he is probably closest to Scriabin, although other commentators have mentioned Bruckner and Richard Strauss as well. Whatever influences one may divine in this piece one thing is certain: Karłowicz was a late-Romantic assailed by the usual spiritual and philosophical crises and, typical of the breed, he had no qualms about providing detailed programmes for his works.

Unfortunately these florid texts are reflected in his orchestral writing. The opening Andante finds the artist in a damaged world, yearning for a better future and the promise of renewal. This dialectic is familiar enough in fin-de-siècle art and music, but curiously this symphony lacks all sense of creative or existential angst; indeed, any narrative that exists here is obscured by impenetrable clouds of orchestral puffery. The recording, taken from a live performance in 2004, is similarly afflicted, utterly devoid of drive or imagination. Even the hints of renewal in this movement – cruelly dashed – have none of the glow or incandescence one associates with the likes of Mahler, particularly in his epic ‘Resurrection’ symphony.

And therein lies the rub. Mahler’s symphonic edifices can shoulder the added weight of prolix programmes but Karłowicz’s ambitious musical structure is much less sturdy. I haven’t heard Noseda’s account of the symphony – a good five minutes swifter overall – but I sense that Salwarowki and his Warsaw band just aren’t terribly convinced by this work.

The Andante, with a slow-burning build-up to the first climax, certainly has a clearer narrative – more of a palpable sense of doubt and hesitant hope – but where Mahler, Bruckner and Scriabin amplify these sentiments with music of originality and power Karłowicz seems unable to match his lofty aspirations with music of equivalent ambition. That said, there are some affecting passages in this movement; what a pity that the dialogue, once initiated, falls victim to its limited vocabulary.

The Vivace gives welcome lift to this sagging symphony, but alas it’s all too brief and too late. Given that this is a hallucination – in part at least, according to Karłowicz – and that all is soon lost in a ‘whirlpool of love and revelry’ – the composer’s words, not mine – one might expect some perfumed, Scriabinesque writing. No such luck; instead we are greeted with one stale blast after another. And the final Allegro maestoso is little better, its quasi-religious chorales a poor substitute for genuine apotheosis and impending illumination. That final chorale, heralded by portentous timps, signals a conventional end to an equally conventional work. Not surprisingly the applause – abruptly faded after just a few seconds – is less than ecstatic.

Perhaps there is more to this symphony than Salwarowski lets on, although I must say I remain unconvinced. Short on inspiration and playing time this is a drab recording of a dreary symphony. If you must persist with Karłowicz then try the symphonic poems. Alternatively, sample Noseda’s version of the symphony on Chandos; at least it’s much better value.

Dan Morgan



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