Mieczyslaw Karlowicz was a Polish composer, though born in
what is now Lithuania. His premature death in a skiing accident
ensured that his list of works remained very short, but Naxos
have recorded almost all of what little there is, and here arrive
at his most important work, the “Rebirth” Symphony. If
the name is new to you, a list of those composers who came to
my mind while listening to this music might be interesting.
Tchaikovsky was forty-six years Karlowicz’ senior, Elgar – a
surprise entry – his senior by nineteen years, Mahler by sixteen
years and Richard Strauss by twelve. The music places him firmly
at the end of the line represented by these, and other, composers.
The name of Gustav Mahler crops up almost inevitably, given
the nature and title of the present work, but in truth, and
in spite of the blurb on the back of the Naxos box, there is
little in common between this symphony and Mahler’s Resurrection.
Karlowicz apparently left a detailed programme discussing the
various philosophical ideas behind the work, the essence of
which is the soul’s journey towards triumphant victory over
fate. This seems closer to Tchaikovsky than to Mahler, though
without forgetting Tchaikovsky’s more pessimistic outlook overall.
And the parallel may be extended into the music itself, which
certainly seems closer to St Petersburg than to Vienna.
There is something about the orchestral writing, and particularly
a way of juxtaposing wind and strings, that recalls Tchaikovsky,
particularly in the first movement, which opens in gloom and
fearful anticipation. But the movement is agitated and stormy
in nature rather than tragic, and there are several calm and
lyrical passages. In terms of musical vocabulary, this is pure
romantic music with a little added spice, and no one who enjoys
the music of the composers already cited above will find anything
surprising or shocking here. There is nothing particularly individual
about the musical language, though the scoring is expert, rich
and violin led, quite without the attenuated chamber-like textures
of Mahler, and much closer to Richard Strauss. It was in the
slow movement that the name of Elgar appeared in my mind, a
most beautiful and touching outpouring not dissimilar in atmosphere
to the slow movement of Elgar’s First Symphony. There
are some dramatic passages in this movement too, but on the
whole a radiant calm is evoked, and most beautifully too. The
third movement is short and lively, with a gentle, dance-like
middle section, from whose rhythms the composer most skilfully
engineers the return of the opening music. The finale begins
in a mood reminiscent of the symphony’s opening, but this once
again is short lived, as only one brief moment of doubt interrupts
its ongoing motion towards a triumphant close. This triumph
is brought about by way of a stately brass choral which may
well remind listeners of the corresponding moment in the finale
of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. In that work, however, the
triumph at the end seems the result of all that has gone before,
whereas here it seems rather easily won.
The Prologue from the earlier incidental music to The White
Dove, a play by Jozafat Nowinski, opens with just the kind
of exuberant brilliance that is largely absent from the symphony.
Elgar comes to mind again, in particular in the writing for
brass, though Elgar is never quite so unbuttoned as this; In
the South comes close. This is a hugely sonorous piece,
full of life and striking musical ideas, and at nearly eleven
minutes, a substantial piece too, though surely too long and
too big to succeed as an overture to a play. The second piece
is an Intermezzo and is the most radiant and contented music
on the disc. Calm and untroubled, the big central climax comes
closer to Mahler than any other moment in these two works.
Karlowicz was not yet thirty when the symphony was completed,
and even younger when he composed The White Dove. One
inevitably wants to speculate as to what he might have achieved
had he lived longer. Would he have turned away from the lush
late-Romanticism of these works and towards Schoenberg, only
two years his senior? However, his style would have developed,
I rather suspect he would have entered the canon as one of the
greats: these works may not be masterpieces, but they are wholly
satisfying and enjoyable, well worth the effort for any listener
wanting something off the beaten track.
The booklet features an excellent introductory essay by Richard
Whitehouse, and the recording is splendid, dramatic, immediate,
and perfectly suited to the music. Antoni Wit has made many
marvellous recordings with the magnificent Warsaw Philharmonic
Orchestra, and this one now joins them. The performances are
totally convinced and totally convincing, the disc easily worth
twice the price, especially if the composer is a new discovery.