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Feliks NOWOWIEJSKI (1877-1946)
Symphony No. 2 Op. 52 (1938) [31:32]
Symphony No. 3 Op. 53 (1940) [41:46]
Poznań Philharmonic Orchestra/Łukasz Borowicz
rec. 2017, University Auditorium, Concert Hall of the Poznań Philharmonic, Poland
DUX 1446 [73:19]

This is my first encounter with the music of Feliks Nowowiejski. My interest was piqued by the positive reviews given to the CPO set of his oratorio Quo Vadis performed by the same conductor and orchestra as here. That work is relatively early, 1903, whereas these symphonies are much later. More significantly, they postdate Nowowiejski's time in Paris in 1934, which, according to the liner notes, brought about a marked change in his attitude to music. Close friendships developed with various other artists and composers, especially Roussel. That led him to move away from the post-Romanticism of his earlier works towards a more avant-garde aesthetic. In his notes (in Polish & English) Marcin Gmys points to the symphonies recorded here (numbered 2 and 3, but Symphony No. 1 is lost) as the best exemplars of this change.

Symphony No. 2, subtitled "Labour & Rhythm", runs for just over thirty one minutes in one continuous movement. Sensibly for the listener unfamiliar with the work, conductor Łukasz Borowicz has had it tracked into seven sections as a guide. Although it was written in the late 1930s, apparently the inspiration and subtitle date back to a visit in Africa in the early years of the century. Nowowiejski witnessed labourers working to the beat of a large drum. He also referenced a late 19th century treatise in which it was proposed that 'rhythm' constituted the fundamental principle of all economic development. Gmys goes on to describe the symphony as a "genuine eulogy of rhythm... associated with the exuberant barbarism of the Igor Stravinsky and Béla Bartok kind".

Certainly this is a strikingly unusual work, quite unlike anything else that springs to mind. Some passages have the density of musical material (with layers of material seemingly oblivious to the other strands around it) in a manner that reminds me of Havergal Brian. But then an Allegro Gaio has the bright energetic neo-classical clarity of the admired Roussel. The overall effect, especially given the continuous structure, is rather kaleidoscopic and occasionally chaotic. Much of the time the orchestration does seems rather heavy, particularly at the climaxes when instruments pile on top of each other. I have to say the performers and the recording do a very good job indeed of keeping the textures as clear as they can be – which even passing familiarity I suspect is the key to making this music work.

The liner notes refer to "relics of classical sonata form" but I have to say that, on the number of listenings I was able to devote to reviewing a new disc, this is far from apparent. Instead it is the variety of mood and instrumental colours that most strike the ear. For example the fifth section Adagio misterioso e molto tranquillo is a very impressive piece of chilled pensive orchestral writing, helped in no small way (as I previously noted) by the clarity of the recording and the security of the playing. Perhaps there are echoes of the opening of Part II of The Rite of Spring but I think this is more the listener's ear trying to find points of reference than any deliberate compositional device. This is swept away by a timpani figure that dominates the following Allegro Vivace, the longest of the work's seven subsections. Again this is thickly scored – possibly one of the less distinctive passages, again with jolting Stravinskian off-beat accents. What is impressive is how well Nowowiejski maintains the momentum of this extended seven-minute sequence with the rather simple folkdance-like melodic material passed around all sections of the orchestra in a mini 'concerto for orchestra' manner.

The works closes with the seventh and final section, in effect, a two minute coda with a rather cinematic Grave dramatico giving way to final Presto which returns to folkdance melody. The scurrying string writing is rather exposing for the Poznań strings before a final dash to a brilliant close.

As Gmys makes clear, a large part of Nowowiejski's struggle for acceptance and recognition in his homeland was as much to do with political as musical concerns. His ethnic German roots, and his musical training in Germany, meant that for some contemporary Polish critics and musicologists he was simply not Polish enough. With other composers such as Szymanowski and Karlowicz representing Polishness in music, Nowowiejski was in every sense an outcast. The situation, one imagines, was made far worse by the invasion of Poland in 1939 by the Nazis. This makes the completion of Symphony No. 3 in 1940 seem all the more remarkable. It also is subtitled; "The Seven Colours of Iris" refewrs to the mythological goddess Iris who personified the rainbow. Curiously, given the creative circumstances, there does not seem to be any overt reference to the invasion in terms of mood or defiance – no Leningrad Symphony this – and indeed Gmys points to Roussel and French impressionism as the key influences. The work is in standard four movements, with the slow movement second.

This is a big work, running over forty minutes. The opening Allegro molto vivo ed energico is a surging dynamic movement that makes the most of the "energico" marking, with numerous trombone glissandi and themes that surge up through the orchestra in a muscular way. There are occasional, often brief, interludes in the general tumult, with the sense of heavy orchestration again prevalent. Given that Nowowiejski scores some passages with considerable subtlety, clearly he wanted the big climaxes heavily scored. Perhaps greater familiarity will make them seem more wholly effective. As in Symphony No. 2, Nowowiejski makes the upper strings really, work with near continuous complex passagework underpinning the main musical material. There is a curious sudden pause with an orchestral piano and swooning harp with an almost Korngoldian lushness. Nowowiejski never heard this work performed. It had to wait until 15 years after his death in 1961 for its premiere. I wonder if he might have revised any of the orchestration.

The second movement again opens with the harp and piano, with fluttering flute figurations that give a "Daphnis goes to Hollywood" atmosphere. It is more languorously effective than that description might immediately imply. But this is a movement that shows how effectively Nowowiejski can handle his orchestral resources. One thing is clear. There is no dark or foreboding atmosphere generated in this movement; indeed, it is positively idyllic for most of the time. The liner notes make no linkage between sections and any specific 'colour'. It is hard not to hear something similar to Bliss's "Blue" from his Colour Symphony, in mood if not musical style or content. The third movement is a pawky march, again with no sense of the militaristic; quirky xylophone interjections and scurrying violins keep the mood subversively light. As the texture thickens, Nowowiejski builds a big climax immediately curtailed by the piano, and the odd little march recommences. This is the movement which most obviously demonstrates Nowowiejski's skill as an orchestrator. It is something of a tour de force, I would imagine very hard to keep clean-textured and neat – which this recording achieves to considerable effect. Again a second brief reflective string passage interrupts the march as it struts to its close. Moodwise this seems to serve as an intermezzo before the main business of the finale. Perhaps the Humoreske in Nielsen's 6th Symphony has a similar disarming role.

Certainly it prepares the ground for the longest movement of the work, a sombre and rather powerful Lento tranquillamente. Unlike the piling up of music material in other movements on this disc, Nowowiejski uses the key material in a much more modal/homophonic chant-like manner, around which he decorates with filigree wind or string writing. Again, I have to say it is quite unlike anything specifically else I can think of. All of the music through both symphonies is tonal in a post-Romantic way. Nowowiejski does not use harmony to create the angst and anguish of the likes of Schreker or Zemlinsky. An unexpected but rather lovely passage comes around 4:40 into this finale, where a pair of solo double-basses set out the modal material that dominates much of this movement. The parallel motion has a Vaughan-Williamsesque effect. Although this is sombre music, the emotion is by no means one of despair or tragedy. Instead, there is a powerful dignity and calmness that is both impressive and moving. The pacing across the movement is also well judged in both construction and execution here. The Poznań heavy brass play their versions of the chant-chorale with burnished power, reaching the last major climax around 14:00. There then follows in effect a three-minute coda with the string intoning the homophonic chant. Both here and earlier in the work there are solo violin passages played with real beauty and sensitivity. The closing pages of the work gently bid farewell to the music that precedes it, with washes of harp glissandi over gently broken phrases in string and piano bringing the work to a calm and visionary end.

By no means do I think I have really begun to 'know' the composer , especially since my knowledge of his music is currently limited to these two works. But I do get the sense that this is a striking and individual compositional voice. If you have an interest in large-scale post-Romantic music that is a rewarding if not easy listen, then this might well be for you. Certainly this is a disc I will be returning to often, with pleasure and hopefully growing insight. Likewise, it fuels my interest to explore more of Nowowiejski’s work. Much of the credit for the success of this disc must go to Łukasz Borowicz and the Poznań Philharmonic Orchestra. Borowicz proved to be an excellent guide to Panufnik’s orchestral works on CPO, and he proves to be just as dedicated here. The liner notes include a conductor's note . It explains his approach, and underlines the fact that his admiration for Nowowiejski's music extends far beyond a passing commitment in the recording studio. The recording is very good if not reaching demonstration class, and the dedication of the players is evident throughout. Nowhere does it say that these are premiere recordings on commercial release but a cursory look online fails to find any earlier versions. I would guess that at least it is the first time this music has had an international availability.

Individual and bold, these are two symphonies that well deserve to be better known.

Nick Barnard

Previous review: Rob Barnett

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