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Mieczysław KARŁOWICZ (1876-1909)
Stanisław and Anna Oświęcim (1907) [21:31]
A Sorrowful Tale - Preludes to Eternity (1908) [11:24]
Episode at a Masquerade (1908-09) [22:28]
Fryderyk CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Allegro de concert, Op.46 (1841, orch. Konrad Binienda) [11:17]
Konrad Binienda (piano), Royal Philharmonic Orchestra / Grzegorz Nowak
rec. 2019, Concert Hall of the Arthur Rubinstein Philharmonic, Łódź
DUX 1621 [66:45]

Karłowicz’s tone poems have done well in recent years. Chandos and Naxos, amongst others, have made strong inroads whilst Dux itself has sourced this repertoire multiply over the years. In fact, it was Jerzy Salwarowski and his Silesian State forces who, back in the early 1980s, recorded all the composer’s tone poems, released in a Dux twofer many years later and again a decade or two after that in new livery, as well as making a Chant du Monde appearance too.

I don’t know if Grzegorz Nowak’s disc is the inaugural volume in such a complete conspectus, but it would be good to think so as he directs the RPO in fine style. The tale of sibling incest Stanislaw and Anna Oświecim makes it mark via some opulent Straussian declamation, the basses digging deep, the winds and horns eloquent in the love music. It’s a notably well-paced reading too, its rich lyricism and funereal desolation given just a slighter tighter edge than rivals Yan Pascal Tortelier and the BBC Philharmonic on Chandos (review), Antoni Wit with the Warsaw Philharmonic on Naxos (review) and Salwarowski on Dux (review review). Whilst it lacks the acoustic bloom of the Chandos it receives a more subtle recorded sound than the old Dux version, splendidly though Salwarowski directs proceedings.

A Sorrowful Tale - Preludes to Eternity is a true psychodrama, powerful, intense and expressive with harmonically advanced writing and an admixture of Straussian lyricism in the ‘life’ music – as opposed to its death counterpart. There’s very little stretch necessary to link Karłowicz with Szymanowski here in what is perhaps his most Strindbergian tome poem. Both Salwarowski and Wit, this time with his New Zealand orchestra, offer equally forceful readings. Completed with orchestration by the composer’s great champion Grzegorz Fitelberg several years after Karłowicz’s tragic early death, Episode at a Masquerade has a necessarily undisclosed programme – though there’s a suggestion from the composer himself that the work describes or evokes a heated scene at a masked ball. It opens in brilliant curtain-raising style, its more reflective panels adding harmonic and colouristic interest all along the way. The death-haunted conclusion – this is a work predicated on opposing themes and emotional states – ends quietly. Constantly fascinating and directed without any undue lingering – it’s a quick interpretation to be sure – it ends the Karłowicz panel of this disc with rich intensity.

Which leaves just the interloper - Konrad Binienda’s orchestration of Chopin’s Allegro de concert. Others have attempted orchestrations but Binienda goes one better in actually sitting at the keyboard. His fluent and elegant playing is matched by a sympathetic piece of craftsmanship. It’s certainly good to hear such a thing once in a while but, other than being a Polish work, it’s not very clear where the programmatic logic lies.

Still, taking this as a bonus novelty the Karłowicz tone poems can certainly be recommended: they’re well-recorded, finely paced, and astutely directed.

Jonathan Woolf

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