Mieczyslaw KARLOWICZ (1876-1909)
Symphony in E minor, Op. 7, Rebirth (1903) [46:55]
The White Dove – Incidental Music (1900) [15:26]
Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra/Antoni Wit
rec. January/February 2009, Warsaw Philharmonic Concert Hall
NAXOS 8.572487 [62:32]
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.
A new name? Don’t hesitate: these are wonderfully satisfying performances of striking music.