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Feliks NOWOWIEJSKI (1877-1946)
Works for Organ
Stanisław Diwiszek (organ)
rec. 2017, Cathedral of St John the Evangelist and St John the Baptist; The Conversion of St Paul Church, Lublin, Poland
ACTE PRÉALABLE AP0408-09 [2 CDs: 150:14]

The last twelve months have seen what amounts to a frenzied revival of interest in the Pole Feliks Nowowiejski, at least as far as labels in his native land are concerned. I reviewed a splendid Dux recording of his dramatic cantata Quo Vadis less than twelve months ago (review); amazingly a rival version of the same work appeared on CPO almost immediately. Then, in recent weeks, the same label has released separate discs of two of his Symphonies (Nos 2 and 3) and of five symphonic poems (review) as well as an organ recital. At the same time the Acte Préalable label has released this two disc set of his four (solo) Organ Concertos, Op 56 with a selection of shorter works. The young soloist Stanisław Diwiszek gives impressive accounts of these big pieces, recorded on two instruments, situated in the Eastern Polish city of Lublin.

These concertos are substantial – three last well in excess of twenty minutes. Karol Rzpecki’s comprehensive notes make the point that, unusually for 20th century repertoire, the precise dating of these pieces has proved impossible, which is why he settles for the decade between 1931 and 1941 for the concerto set. There is an improvisatory spirit to each of them – many of the individual movements are based on hymn-tunes or Gregorian themes. The big initial movement of the Concerto no 1 is thus based on the oft-used anthem Veni Creator Spiritus. The theme occurs and reoccurs, clothed in ever-changing colours and forms as the movement builds convincingly. The motif, upon which the chorale-like second movement Infantes Dei is based, has a restrained exotic ecstasy about it, which some listeners may find redolent of early Messiaen, although the material is worked in ways that suggest both French and German traditions. It’s a brief vision that leads directly into the final In Paradisum, which consists of a prelude, followed by an austere and densely textured Maestoso section, which incorporates some fascinating pedal sonorities. The work fades quietly but somehow lacks transcendence. The recorded sound of the organ used here and for the Concerto No 3 (from Lublin’s Conversion of St Paul Church) is more than acceptable, although it seems somewhat distanced and a little compromised by noises off, certainly more than the (apparently modern) Cathedral instrument used for the even-numbered concertos.

The Concerto No 2 consists of a long movement, followed by two briefer panels. The opening Introduction et Fugue begins with an assertive if ominous Gregorian theme. The way this material is worked is not dissimilar from the first movement of the previous concerto, and although the fugue here is skilfully wrought, it’s rather densely woven. It is certainly memorable and spectacular in its own way. The reflective slow movement Canon gregorien adopts a recitative style and Diwiszek imbues it with some colourful registration, although it meanders a little in the middle. The keyboard action is audible and a little annoying here. The Toccata finale is an impressive virtuoso vehicle, which refers back to the melodic material of the opening. All four of these concertos have previously appeared on disc; Rudolf Innig recorded the first two for MDG (MDG 317-1591-2 review) almost a decade ago – my colleague Dan Morgan clearly had reservations about both, but I have to say I really enjoyed the Concerto No 2 and have found it hasn’t palled at all with repeated listening.

It’s interesting to speculate on what makes these works ‘Concertos’ rather than ‘Symphonies’, as there are few obvious clues to the reasoning behind this nomenclature. In fact by the time Nowowiejski embarked on the composition of these concertos, he had already completed his nine Organ Symphonies, Op 45 (dated 1931). Like the concertos they also employ (with the exception of the four movement sixth and single movement eighth) of three movement structures, while in terms of musical style and internal form there seems to be little to distinguish the two sets (I have heard the nine symphonies on Rudolf Innig’s fine three disc conspectus on MDG 317-075-7). One theory cited in the note is that the composer didn’t want to exceed Beethoven’s number of symphonies.

We cross the fair city of Lublin and return to the church organ for the more compressed Concerto No 3. This opens with a Preludio, which, by Nowowiejski’s standards, borders on the jaunty and consists of two contrasting themes, based on a liturgical church song, which meld pleasingly. The slow movement is a somewhat gnomic chorale-prelude, based on the Kyrie from the Gregorian Missa ‘Orbis factor’, though again the noise created by the instrument is a little distracting. The Introduzione e Variazione finale is also based on the song (dedicated to St Mary), which provided the source material for the first movement. This is florid and picturesque and builds towards a brief but imposing Grave finale. It again has an improvisatory feel to it and, while the tune itself is memorable, formally it came over as rather fractured to my ears.

Listening to these pieces as a set it becomes abundantly clear that Nowowiejski was open to the influences of both French and German models. There are hints throughout of earlier French masters like Vierne as well as Dupré and Alain, while the spirit of Karg-Elert or even Reger hovers around some of the finales. The Concerto No 4 was inspired by the Italian priest St John Bosco (1815-88), who was canonised in 1934. While I found the outer movements of this work rather anonymous, the slow movement is a ravishing Andantino, richly coloured and decisively informed by the late-romantic French school. The registration is certainly varied in the finale, though I feel it is not matched by the quality of its melodic and harmonic material, notwithstanding the rousing conclusion. The Cathedral organ is splendidly caught here.

The album is completed by a selection of shorter works drawn from the entirety of Nowowiejski’s career. While these again vary in quality, the three Fantaisies included on the first (Cathedral organ) disc are undeniably attractive and certainly bear repeated listening. As the word Fantaisie suggests, they have an obviously improvisatory feel to them, but they are beautifully shaded and deeply atmospheric, and make imaginative use of the Polish carols, on which they are based. This is especially true of the example drawn from the Op 9 set, The Midnight Mass at Wawel Cathedral, which moves inexorably from the reflective to the monumental and back again.

Having been introduced to Nowowiejski’s Symphonies Op 45 via the Innig set mentioned earlier, the present issue has confirmed my impression that this composer indeed made a significant contribution to twentieth century organ repertoire. The works included span his entire career. While they do not all project consistent levels of inspiration there is certainly sufficient quality and distinctiveness in Nowowiejski’s oeuvre to persuade organists outside Poland to take the plunge. Notwithstanding my reservations, I do hope enthusiasts will be persuaded to acquire these well-filled and attractively packaged discs. In the meantime, I look forward to becoming acquainted with his orchestral music.

Richard Hanlon

Organ Concerto No 2 in A, Op 56 No 2 (1931-41) [21:17]
Fantasia The Midnight Mass at the primeval St Mary’s Church in Cracow, Op 31 No 3 [8:12]
Prelude in G [2:41]
Polish Fantasia The Midnight Mass at Wawel Cathedral, Op 9 No 1 [6:57]
Prelude Adoremus, Op 31 No 2 [3:55]
Fantasia Christmas in Poland Op 31 No 4 [6:37]
Prelude on the theme of the Kyrie from Missa XI (Orbis factor) [5:59]
Organ Concerto No 4 in B flat minor, Op 56 No 4 (1931-41)[22:24]
Organ Concerto No 1 in C, Op 56 No 1 (1931-41) [28:39]
Elevation e Fuga, Op 2 No 2 [7:11]
Einzug in den Dom – Pochód do Katedry (Festmarsch – Marsz uroczysty) Op 8 No 3 [2:59]
Offertoire Op 7 No 2 [3:21]
Marche solennelle [3:12]
Mater Dolorosa Op 45 No 6 [5:06]
Entrée solennelle [3:42]
Róże św. Teresy Op 9 No 2 (Preludjum na organy lub harmonjum) [3:24]
Organ Concerto No 3 in G major Op 56 No 3 (1931-41) [14:27]



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