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Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Symphony No. 1 in D, Op. 25 (Classical) (1917) [12:22]
Karol SZYMANOWSKI (1882-1937)
Symphony No. 4, Op. 60 (Symphonie Concertante) (1932) [22:11]*
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Symphony No. 4 in E minor, Op. 98 (1884) [37:13]
*Jan Ekier (piano)
Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra/Witold Rowicki
rec. in concert, Huddersfield Town Hall, April 1967
ORCHESTRAL CONCERT CDS CD15/2016 [71:46]

Veteran listeners may remember Witold Rowicki for a forthright, characterful cycle of Dvořák symphonies on Philips from the 1970s; his recorded credits in the West were otherwise few. In these 1967 concert performances, the conductor treats a wider swath of the repertoire in a similar manner.

The results are particularly salubrious in Karol Szymanowski's Symphonie Concertante. When this composer's orchestral works entered the Western catalogues in the 1980s, critics admired the shimmering, impressionistic colours, but what I heard as watery sonorities and a spineless rhythmic framework left me underwhelmed. Rowicki, however, projects the music with a firm line and a straightforward rhythmic impulse. The first movement still hits a lull or two, but the progression from episode to episode is persuasive, and there's still plenty of colour to savour. The orchestra plays with surprising assurance - even in Poland, the music can't have been played all that frequently - and Jan Ekier pulls off the virtuoso obbligato piano part skillfully, with a ringing tone in the climaxes and a wide dynamic range.

The Prokofiev, which begins the disc, feels helter-skelter. Discipline within sections is tight, but the conductor, concentrating on forward motion, is a bit casual about lining up the various parts precisely - and, truth be told, the Larghetto simply sounds too offhanded at this brisk pace.

Some conductors play the Brahms Fourth for broad lyricism; Rowicki's taut, austere approach, by contrast, treats each movement as an abstract structure requiring clear exposition. This generates considerable power, especially in the outer movements - even if the conductor's implacable beating keeps threatening to detach the first subject from its flowing accompaniment - but more warmth and breathing room would not have been amiss. It's not until the peak of the second theme-group, at 2:11, that the first movement is allowed a little expansion; in the scherzo, the woodwinds' transitional phrase at 2:26 brings no particular sparkle. Only the Andante moderato, at a steady, dignified tread, taps into a more pensive affect. The orchestra responds marvelously: in the first movement, the double-semiquaver upbeats are impressively tight, and a single uncertain woodwind entry at 6:27 stands out by its very rarity.

Geoffrey Terry's remastering of his own original recording, made during a Warsaw Philharmonic tour of the U.K., offers nicely focused bass and vividly realistic reproduction of soloists and instrumental choirs - the trombone passage at 5:30 of Szymanowski's finale cuts through with impressive bite - but the fuller textures become more opaque. In the Andante molto sostenuto of the same score, the sustained trumpet note at 4:20, when the first climax hits, is aggressively bright; the first violins turn insistently edgy here and there in Brahms's driving scherzo.

Recommended as a document of the orchestra and conductor, and specifically for the Szymanowski.

Stephen Francis Vasta
Stephen Francis Vasta is a New York-based conductor, coach, and journalist.

 
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