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Feliks NOWOWIEJSKI (1877-1946)
Symphonic Works
Overture to the oratorio 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 opera The Legend of the Baltic Sea, Op.28 (1924) [12.37]
Overture to the opera-ballet The King of the Winds, Op.37 (1927) [13.06]
Przemysław Neumann (conductor)
Józef Elsner Opole Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra
rec. 2017, Józef Elsner Opole Philharmonic Concert Hall, Opole, Poland
DUX 1425 [77.51]

One of the joys of the CD age has been the opportunity to discover the works of composers rarely if ever programmed in the concert hall, sometimes with the hope that an audience for concert performances might be created through recordings. Many composers are interesting, sometimes by way of contrast with the recognised genius of justly famous contemporaries, but even among the interesting ones, there is often nothing sufficiently original to justify a sustained cult.

For most outside Poland, and, I suspect for many within, Nowowiejski is today relatively little known, and when he is known, then it is principally as a composer of oratorios and church music. But, on the evidence of this CD, there is very much more to him than that – he rises above the merely interesting to reveal himself as someone with an original and distinctive voice. I was glad to make acquaintance with his work and look forward to exploring very much further.

Notes for the recording – in English and Polish – are exemplary, outlining not only the composer’s life and works, but contextualising them against the turbulent history of Poland in the 19th and 20th Centuries. In a partitioned land, Polish nationalism was a difficult choice. By background, Nowowiejski was Prussian-born, and German was his natural language, not Polish. Yet, partly influenced by his parents, both keenly interested in Polish culture, he consciously chose the path of Polish patriotism – his song Rota, from 1910, was fiercely anti-German. His pro-Polish views made life difficult for him in the German academies (including Berlin and Regensburg, though principally the former, where he worked with Max Bruch). After the First World War, he settled in Poznań in the newly independent Poland. He spent the years of the Second World War mainly in Krakow.

Nowowiejski’s cause has not been helped by a dearth of published scores. Most of his works remain in manuscript – the Opole Philharmonic Foundation is responsible for providing the scores recorded here. The results more than justify the effort.

The earliest work, the Overture to The Return of the Prodigal Son, is very striking, demonstrating command of a large orchestra which includes celesta, organ and a large percussion section. An early work it may be, but the writing is both confident and impressive. Repeated listening reveals the strength of the underlying structure, and pacing in this performance is well-handled as the piece fades gently away.

The tone-poems, Beatrix and Nina and Pergolesi, similarly involve a large orchestra. Of the two, I marginally preferred Nina and Pergolesi, with its strong contrasts, often within the space of a few bars. The method is characteristic of the composer, with thematic growth through transformations rather than formal development. In technique rather than sound-world there are parallels with Mahler – perhaps a little of the world of the first movement of the Third Symphony.

The Legend of the Baltic Sea was very popular but went through much editing before achieving its final form. In the overture there are techniques reminiscent of the earlier works on the CD. As in Mahler, loud passages give way to chamber-like moments. There are some lovely moments for harp and solo violin.

The King of the Winds started life as an intended opera, but eventually became a ballet in nine tableaux. It is very impressive, with monumental passages contrasted with quieter moments.

Performances are committed and impressive. Nowowiejski is a composer I want to explore much further. There is a recording of Symphonies 2 and 3 (Dux 1446 - review) and The King of the Winds is available on a recent Warner Classics set, with Sinfonia Varsovia. The latter is recent and one of several new recordings If a Nowowiejski revival is happening, on the evidence of this CD, it is cause for excitement.

Michael Wilkinson

Previous reviews: Jim Westhead ~ Rob Barnett

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