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Mieczysław KARŁOWICZ (1876-1909)
Returning Waves, Op.9 (1904) [19:42]
Eternal Songs, Op.10 (Everlasting Yearning; Love and Death; Eternal Being) (1906) [21:29]
Lithuanian Rhapsody, Op.11 (1906) [14:50]
Bianca da Molena, Op.6 (1900) [10:35]
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Grzegorz Nowak
rec. Watford Colosseum, 15-16 February 2015

Grzegorz Nowak has been energetic in recording a considerable swathe of European classical symphonic territory with the RPO. More recently he has been busying himself with the repertoire of his homeland. This Karłowicz disc - and quite a few others from this source - presenting the three tone poems in opus number order, has eluded us until now.

Here are four of Karłowicz's doom-laden tone-poems including the largest of them, Eternal Songs. The brooding Returning Waves is the single largest span of music here at approaching 20 minutes. It adds a dab or two of Scriabin - listen to those resolute priapic trumpets at 5.50 and 7.30 and the despairing sighs at 11.07. Here and there the music's rhapsodic progress links with the worlds of Ciurlionis's The Sea, Alfvén's Symphony No. 4 and Bax's Tintagel and Garden of Fand. There are Tchaikovskian delights along the way. Derivative it may seem but Karłowicz here has more vigour than say Rimsky's Sadko tone-poem or the non-marine tone poems of Eugeniusz Morawski. There's no blood and guts ending for Returning Waves.

The three-movement and separately tracked Eternal Songs runs to 21 minutes across three discrete movements, each with its own allusive title. Each 'Song' is reminiscent of the early tone poems of Delius and Bax. They are late-romantic in the sense of Tchaikovsky's Hamlet and the glowering darkness of Balakirev's Thamar and Ciurlionis's The Sea. Eternal Songs is pressed forward with considerable vigour by Nowak. I recall a broadcast in the 1980s when Rozhdestvensky conducted this work with the Chicago SO. The Russian conductor took some 26 minutes for the whole work so Nowak does not dawdle in the passing scenery.

Eternal Songs starts subdued and rises to gloomy but often viscous activity. Brassy heroic heights are enjoyed before returning to morose depths and peace of a sort. In the second 'panel' lush textures continue with some distinctly Tchaikovskian accents and remarkably Baxian moments (3.00). Scriabin is also a presence in the shape of moments similar to the eruptive orgasmic opening of Enescu's First Symphony and Szymanowski's Concert Overture. The final panel - the shortest of the three - suggests a hero teetering on the edge of grandeur. This composer finds treasure around the tension between the poles of ecstatic activity and reflective insight. There are a few Brucknerian moments too (Symphony 8 at 2.30) and things do become rather overblown at 3.30 onwards. I have heard worse and we must bear in mind that Karłowicz died before reaching the age of 33. This is the music of a young composer.

The Lithuanian Rhapsody is a world away from Enescu's Romanian or Liszt's Hungarian examples. It broods in concentration like a hymn to the country's quintessence; it’s not a garish postcard. You do get a folk melody at 3.50 but sombre in dress and it is only a strand, although it does return. This is a good work and a fine 'intro' to Karłowicz's purely orchestral tone poems. Its cradle-rocking progress is memorable and soothing rather than violent. There's a flash of brilliance at 11.00 but this does nothing to undermine this finely calculated adventure in nationalist tone poetry rather than neon flightiness. The piece ends where its lodestar pointed all along - in sombre mood-painting and an evocation of ancient Baltic days.

Bianca da Molena is to these other tone poems what John Foulds' Le Cabaret is to his Avatara - at least at first. It's an often flighty overture to a play ("The White Dove") by Jozafat Nowinski. The ten-minute overture has its moments of becalmed doldrums but there's plenty of peppy drama too in the manner of Berlioz's Le Corsair . It is more dynamic than Returning Waves but less distinctively personal. It ends in harp-decorated peace, evocative of Bianca.

This composer died at the age of 32 in a skiing accident in the Tatra Mountains - yes, the very same mountains hymned by the Czech composer Novák.

The liner-note is a well written example and is by one of the major names in communicative music journalism, Julian Haylock. I don't warm to having it served up on a light blue ground with white typography.

These are sound and sympathetic renderings of tone poems that are at ease in the era of gorgeous decadence. The CD is a good single disc collection to start with but you certainly need a CD of his Violin Concerto as well - to experience the best of this composer. There are now plenty of versions of the Concerto from which to choose. The RPO recording by Mike Hatch is well executed. The only approximately direct competition comes from Naxos's two volumes of the tone poems (review review) as conducted by Antoni Wit. Other discs - including some typically classy entries at full price from Chandos - approach Karłowicz from differently angled couplings.

Rob Barnett



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