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Overture to ‘The Return of the Prodigal Son’, Op.3 (1902) [13:38]
Beatrix - Symphonic Poem, Op.17 No.1 (1903) [20:11]
Nina and Pergolesi – Symphonic Fantasy, Op.17 No.2 (1903) [18:19]
Overture to ’The Legend of the Baltic Sea’, Op.28 (1924) [12:37]
Overture to ‘The King of the Winds’, Op.37 (1927) [13:06]
Josef Elsner Opole Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra/Przemysław Neumann
rec. Opole Philharmonic Concert Hall, Opole, 2017 DUX 1425 [77:51]
The Nowowiejski revival continues. Last year both Dux and CPO issued acclaimed recordings of his oratorio ‘Quo Vadis’ – reviewed here and here. My own delighted acquaintance with the CPO version prompted me to investigate the availability of recordings of his music, and I found that his many organ symphonies have been recorded, as well as some choral songs, masses and piano music. Unfortunately, I am not a great fan of solo organ works, and have not yet got round to listening to the piano music CD’s that I have purchased, and so I am very pleased to have the opportunity to review this CD of orchestral pieces.
He was born in Wartburg (now Barczewo) in 1877, and at that time the town was in Prussia, having been annexed from Poland in 1772. After WW1 a plebiscite resulted in the inhabitants voting by a large majority to remain in East Prussia, rather than transfer to the newly reconstituted Polish state, and only in 1946 was it returned to Poland. I mention this, together with the rest of this paragraph, to illustrate why Nowowiejsky was regarded by many Poles as a German composer. In fact, he was of Polish descent on his father’s side only, and in his early years, spoke little Polish. His musical education was almost exclusively Germanic under Max Bruch and others. By 1906 he had begun to conduct Polish expatriate choirs, for whom he composed nationalistic and religious pieces, and it was only then that any of his compositions were performed to any degree in Poland. In 1909 he became artistic director of the Krakow Music Society (Krakow was then in Austria), and he stared to become known to the authorities as a pro-Polish musical voice. Despite a burgeoning international reputation - thanks largely to the immensely successful Quo Vadis, he felt that he was not receiving enough support from the expatriate Polish musical world, and so 1913 saw him leaving Krakow for Berlin, where the outbreak of war resulted in him being conscripted into the German army musical corps. After the war he moved to Poznan, now part of the newly reconstituted Polish state. He lived there, his reputation and success increasing, until 1940, when he moved to Warsaw where he lived until the end of the war. In 1945 he moved back to Poznan, but his activities had been much reduced by a stroke in 1941. He died in 1946.
One of the attractions of Quo Vadis is the colourful orchestral palette Nowowiejsky employs, and so it is no surprise to encounter the same facility presented throughout these pieces. The works span his compositional career, but I don’t detect much change (progression?) in his style. He was a renowned organist and produced many works for that instrument, and it isn’t difficult to detect that influence in his orchestral style. In Beatrix for example, the orchestral voices are sometimes led as though they were under under the control of an organ’s stops. Similarly, in ‘The King of the Winds’, parallel fifths and octaves remind the listener of an organ mixture.
The earliest piece on the disc is the Overture to the oratorio The Prodigal son. Nowowiejski was just 24 and still studying under Bruch, but it was not performed until after WW1 and had little success, however it won a musical competition which resulted in the composer being able to travel in Europe for two years. During this period, he met such composers as Mahler,Saint-Saens and Mascagni. The overture consists of one major theme, introduced immediately after the short introductory bars, which gathers strength in the following allegro, and leads to a rather surprising section for solo violin. The main theme then returns , recalls the opening chords and then fades away. His orchestration includes a harp, celesta, organ and a large percussion section which allows Nowowiejski to showcase his original timbral ideas.
The prize of the European trip came with the stipulation that the winner to compose two works, and Nowowiejski obliged with the two symphonic poems Beatrix and Nina and Pergolesi, not to mention working on two symphonies and finishing the first version of Quo Vadis.
Beatrix and Nina requires a large orchestra with an extensive percussion section, celesta, harp and lyre, triple woodwind, large brass section and an equally large string section. The piece is based on a single short theme, which is presented in a diverse palette of colours, registers, dynamics and harmonies. The composer described the piece as being based on Beatrice Portinari, who appears in Dante’s The Divine Comedy, and because it is in two parts it is possible to surmise that the first section depicts Dante’s feelings towards her, and the second, her role as a heavenly guide. Nowowiejski’s imaginative scoring can be experienced in the linking section, where the main theme is presented on solo double bass, joined later by harp, celesta, tuba and trombones!
Next on the CD is the overture to the opera The Legend of the Baltic Sea, which, with its patriotic undertone and colourful music, gave the composer a national success almost comparable to the plaudits that followed on from Quo Vadis. It relates the legend of the loss of Poland’s access to the Baltic Sea in ancient times, and celebrates the newly acquired access gained with the re-establishment of Poland after WW1. The music is vivid and superbly orchestrated, as one has come to expect of his music, and there are occasional modal-sounding passages which are intended to evoke the historic era. It gives way to an extended romantic theme that is used in the love music of the opera. The whole overture is a splendidly memorable affair, orchestrated with élan, and I can easily understand the success, in Poland at least, of the opera when it was first staged in 1924.
The final track on the CD contains the overture to the ballet-fantastique The King of the Winds. The booklet makes harsh criticism of the work, relating to the libretto of the original proposed opera, which was written by ‘talentless hacks’ aka Feliks Maria and Kazimierz Nowowiejski, his sons. Because of this, it is claimed, the work was not a success. However, I must say that the music is very attractive, with powerful thematic invention, and the composer’s predilection for organ-like sonorities comes to the fore. I would love to hear the music from the entire ballet-fantastique
In summary, this is a most welcome, highly recommendable disc, containing music that should delight the ear of any lover of middle-to-late romantic orchestral works. Whilst the music cannot be said to be particularly individual, indeed the word ‘eclectic’ springs to mind at times, there is no doubt that Nowowiejsky had a distinct melodic talent and could orchestrate with the best of them (even Rimsky) . The recording is vivid, placing the fine orchestra in a welcoming acoustic, though the upper string sound presents a steely edge. The accompanying booklet is detailed, both in terms of his life and the works recorded. The orchestra, which plays very well indeed, was established in 1952, and has its seventy-three players listed at the back of the booklet.
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