Born at Lwów, Poland, Stanisław Skrowaczewski, now aged ninety-one, is still conducting. As well as being a renowned conductor he is also highly regarded as a composer. On this Reference Recordings release Skrowaczewski conducts a pair of his own works with the the orchestra he served as music director (1960-79). This release of world première recordings from 2003 is not new or a reissue but I felt MusicWeb-International should have an opinion on these worthy compositions.
During his lengthy and illustrious career Skrowaczewski has conducted all the world’s most renowned orchestras and in his 90th year has been maintaining a busy schedule. In the period 1984-91 I attended Hallé concerts regularly in Manchester during Skrowaczewski’s tenure as principal conductor. He has returned to conduct the Hallé a number of times since to considerable acclaim.
The opening work is the Concerto Nicolò
for piano left hand and orchestra composed by Skrowaczewski in 2003. A commission by Dr. Herbert R. Axelrod, co-author of a biography on Nicolò Paganini, it was written for Gary Graffman who was experiencing severe problems with his right hand. Skrowaczewski based the Concerto Nicolò
on Paganini's famous 24th Caprice. The work is described in the booklet notes as using “the Caprice theme only as a point of departure”.
Cast in four movements, the Concerto Nicolò
opens with a Lento
. Immediately an eerie sense of solitude is created by Graffman's piano, joined by the orchestra. The music becomes increasingly agitated bordering on the aggressive. Scurrying and darting figures predominate with an undertow of shadowy menace. Low strings resonate darkly combined with sinister sounding jousts on the brass in the Largo
. Graffman’s piano line produces a sense of the forlorn isolation as it steers through a barren landscape. In the third movement, Presto Tenebroso
dark, highly agitated figures prevail. At times a curious sense of falling is felt strongly, in the manner of a Hitchcock film score. Skrowaczewski’s petulant piano writing creates contrasts between lyricism and percussive modes. Opening the Finale
are two shattering orchestral climaxes delivered with palpable menace. Next appear Largo
sections of intense mystery followed by playing of extreme tension and relentless drive.
Skrowaczewski’s completed and premièred his Concerto for Orchestra
in 1986. It was written to commemorate the first decade of the Orchestra Hall, Minneapolis. Feeling that in the two movement score he had been too liberal in giving each player a substantial part Skrowaczewski substantially revised the score in 1998. It was subsequently short-listed for a Pulitzer Prize in 1999. The orchestral textures now boast increased clarity and flow and require fewer players. I found the opening movement Adagio
to contain a fundamental character of dark, shadowy nocturnal imagery variegated with short sections of biting anger. The second and final movement Adagio
, ‘Anton Bruckners Himmelfahrt
’ (Bruckner’s Heavenly Journey) was written by Skrowaczewski, a Bruckner specialist, in honour of the great man. Broad in scope and spiritual in temperament, a remarkable extended central passage of tremendous expressive energy is thrillingly characterised by the Minnesota players.
Throughout there is no suggestion of brashness or overconfidence by the well prepared Minnesota Orchestra who play tautly with perception and gripping intensity. No problems whatsoever with the satisfying sound quality from Orchestra Hall, Minneapolis. Skrowaczewski’s accessible if rarely heard music, so marvellously played by the Minnesota Orchestra under the composer’s baton, deserves a wider audience.