Czeslaw MAREK (1891-1985)
Suite for orchestra Op. 25 (1926 rev 1943) [20:35]
Quatre Meditations Op. 14 (1911-13) [20:30]
Serenade for violin and orchestra (1916-18) [30:58]
Sinfonia Op. 28 (1928) [32:43]
Capriccio Op. 15 (1915) [10:21]
Sinfonietta (1916) [24:43]
Ingolf Turban (violin)
Philharmonia Orchestra/Gary Brain
rec. Watford Colosseum, London, England October-November 1995 (Opp. 14, 25, 28) and Abbey Road Studio 1, London, England May, October 1996. DDD
GUILD GMCD 7360/61 [74:31 + 66:52]

The Swiss Label Guild is holding something of a candle for the Polish/Swiss composer Czeslaw Marek at the moment. This is the fourth double disc set from them featuring his music; the others contain chamber works, piano music and lastly a selection of songs and choral works. Although Guild have marked both the play and copyrights of this set as 2011 it should be noted that in fact this is a straight re-release of recordings originally made for Koch and released in the mid-1990s. Whether or not the discs have been re-mastered to ‘earn’ the 2011 playright I do not know.
I consider myself fairly up to speed on 20th century music but this is the first time I have heard anything by this composer. Assuming that might be the case for other collectors too a brief biography might help. Marek was born in Lemberg (today Lviv) in South-East Poland. His musical studies started in the local Conservatoire in 1908 but by 1910 he was in Vienna. Piano studies with the world-famous Theodor Leschetizky put him on the path of a piano virtuoso, a career which he attempted to follow in parallel with composing until the mid-1920s. In 1932 he took Swiss citizenship – he had lived there since 1915 - and with the outbreak of World War II gave up composition. From then to his death some 45 years later he focused his energy on teaching and writing pedagogical books. His own composition teachers were Zemlinsky’s pupil Karl Weigl and Hans Pfitzner but spiritual or indeed intellectual influences included Reger, Busoni and even Ravel.
It would be possible to write this review in the style of some kind of compositional recipe; a dash of X mixed with a healthy sprinkling of Y all balanced with a healthy dollop of Z. But Marek is more than the sum of these influences. Most of the time I think there is a commonality of experience – breathing the same musical air - which leads to the use of similar gestures as well as a shared aesthetic. What I found most surprising listening to this music as a sequence was the chameleon-like nature of these compositions. On the strength of these two discs which apparently contain the bulk of Marek’s most important orchestral compositions it is very hard to tie him down stylistically. Even within movements of the same work he can veer from impressionistic to post-modern expressionist. There are certain character traits that pervade the core of this music whatever the exterior dressing. This strikes me as serious, indeed sober but not sombre music. Not that there are no passages of considerable beauty but it is not a sensuous seductive beauty. Likewise, the energetic writing has an athletic vigour rather a hedonistic delight – no Rite-like dance to the death or delirious La Valse here. If we accept the basic premise that the 20th century saw revolutions in the use of harmony and rhythm it is clear that at heart Marek was a conservative. Harmonically he does little that would have shocked Franz Schmidt or indeed Reger and he shares with the latter a rhythmic solidity that ultimately proscribes and defines his musical style. Another curiosity is the lack of linear development – stylistically speaking – through this body of work. Not that it really matters a jot but I find it curious that the Suite for Orchestra Op.25 has clear echoes of French neo-classicism whilst the adjacently numbered Sérénade has a decidedly Germanic slant. Of the former work Jürgen Schaarwächter’s informative liner-note draws a valid parallel with the Ravel of Le Tombeau de Couperin. Even the movement titles seem to replicate the neo-classical suites beloved of composers trying to escape late-Romantic shackles. This strikes me as one of the most successful works in the set. Another fact it underlines is that there seems to be no room in Marek’s work for any kind of musical nationalism – I would defy anyone to hear anything specifically Polish here. The afore-mentioned Sérénade is another four-movement suite but this time with a virtuosic solo violin as protagonist. Marek’s wife was a violinist and this seems to have galvanised the composer into a more overtly emotional display than any other music on these discs. The soloist is the very fine Ingolf Turban. Aside from this disc I have an excellent recording from Claves of him playing concertos by Bruch, Busoni and Strauss. His playing there and here is excellent so his absence from the recorded catalogue to any degree is one of those little mysteries. He might not have the sweetest most refined sound but in fact his lithe and muscular style suits this music particularly well. Another mystery is the magpie nature of this work; the opening Allegro has passages of great rhapsodic beauty – as ardent and overtly romantic as any part of this programme. The following Allegretto is a gallant minuet-like dance in Holberg Suite guise. Lovely as it is it feels rather at odds with both the movements around it and the time of its composition. I was left wondering if this style of music has especial resonance for Mrs Marek! The third movement Andante is an impressive slow movement with the soloist playing high up the bottom string in true ‘appassionato’ style. As the music builds the violin rises through its register to an ardently impassioned climax. Some may shy away from the almost cinematic drama but to my ear its a beautifully paced movement of instant appeal. The closing movement has very much the feel of a standard concerto festive finale although Marek inserts a little fugal sequence which feels a bit like interrupting a good party to revise for an exam. Fortunately the party soon resumes although the ending is curious for the way it disappears into thin air like the musical equivalent of a conjurer’s vanishing act – as quick as it is unexpected. The whole works feels like a standard three part concerto with the curious little Allegretto interpolated. For any interested in the byways of 20th century violin literature this is something of a find. Personally I prefer it to the – more traditional - Karlowicz concerto which has been resurrected in recent years. This is a splendid performance by Turban and frankly worth the price of this set for this work alone.
The second disc of the set contains two of Marek’s more formal attempts at standard symphonic forms. The Sinfonia Op.28 was his contribution to the famous Columbia Gramophone Company’s competition to celebrate the centenary of the death of Schubert. This won the ‘Polish’ zone of the competition – which included Finland, Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia. Perhaps in this thirty-two minute single movement work Marek achieves his most clearly personal utterance. Certainly, he could not be accused of producing a work gauged for easy appeal. Again the words sombre and austere occur and even when the music breaks free of the opening four minutes of growling and heaving darkly-textured writing the faster music is once again muscular rather than exuberant. Without the benefit of a score or extended study this is not a piece that it is easy to quickly assimilate. Climaxes, which help define a work’s structure rapidly rise up and are just as rapidly passed by. In fact it is not until around the twenty three minute mark that it feels like the music begins to coalesce into a passage of sustained developmental writing with a cumulative momentum building to the work’s main and – now – impressively sustained climax – in part a rather brutal modernist march. Certainly this appears to exorcise some demons for Marek; the closing pages of the work being considerably more serene and lighter in spirit – there’s even the odd simple major chord to be had – with the closing four minutes having the function of a reflective epilogue that finally sinks into a restful peace quite different from the unease and doubt from which it emerged half an hour earlier. I find the final third of the work more enjoyable than the relatively opaque and dour opening two-thirds. That being said it is a piece to which I will return because my instinct says that time and familiarity will reveal the workings of the extended opening that makes the ‘pay-off’ of the final section so rewarding.
The Capriccio that follows is the piece I enjoyed least. In trying to be overtly light it runs so contrary to Marek’s nature that it ends up sounding forced. Again, being rhythmically complex is not the same as being rhythmically interesting. This has an opus number adjacent to the three-movement Sinfonietta which closes the set. As Marek was only in his early twenties it should not be surprising that the shade of his teacher Reger looms large. It is not clear if Marek is trying to follow symphonic or serenade form. The suspicion is the diminutive in the title allows him to commit to either and neither! The opening Allegro appassionato does suffer from occasional note-spinning and rather thick orchestration – curiously not as effective as the writing he achieved 2 opus earlier with the Quatre Méditations although the closing two minutes suddenly take on a headily Straussian ardour that is both a surprise and rather enjoyable. The flowing Moderato assai is a gently flowing intermezzo that sits somewhere between late romanticism and impressionism. It is probably the most instantly appealing music of the set with a lyrical feel that places it firmly in the world of incidental music rather than symphonic. The finale turns out to be musically the same the closing movement of the violin Sérénade – and good as it is I think the addition of the solo player lightens the spirit of the work and adds a textural variety from which it benefits greatly.
There is contrapuntal complexity a-plenty and general virtuosity in all these works and the Philharmonia are on their toes playing with considerable skill and neat precision. Good unfussy engineering from both Andrew Walton of K&A Productions and Chris Craker of Black Box. The contents of the two discs were made in two venues roughly a year apart by the different teams. I must say I prefer the sound Walton achieves at the Watford Colosseum in comparison to the rather washy bathroom acoustic preferred by some companies there in recent years. Artistically the entire programme (and the choral discs set too) is in the safe hands of Gary Brain. Marek is never going to be a populist composer and that being the case it is unlikely that these discs are going to have much competition any time soon. Good news therefore that they seem to be far more than simply competent performances. Clearly I have nothing to compare these recording to but they sound well prepared and lucid. If I would have liked more abandon in some of the works I suspect that is a function of the pieces themselves rather than the interpretations. At the low mid-price at which these sets are being offered there is plenty of interesting music here for the adventurous collector although my ultimate impression is of a fine craftsman lacking the glamour of genius.

Nick Barnard

Plenty of interesting music here for the adventurous collector although my ultimate impression is of a fine craftsman lacking the glamour of genius.