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Mieczysław KARŁOWICZ (1876-1909)
Stanisław and Anna Oświęcim, Op. 12 [21:31]
A Sorrowful Tale (Preludes to Eternity), Op. 13 [11:24]
Episode at a Masquerade, Op. 14 [22:28]
Fryderyk CHOPIN (1810–1849)
Allegro de concert in A major, Op. 46 (orch. Konrad Binienda) [11:17]
Konrad Binienda (piano)
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Grzegorz Nowak
rec. 17 October 2019, Concert Hall of the Artur Rubinstein Philharmonic in Łódź, Poland
DUX 1621 [66:45]

I have long been a fan of Mieczysław Karłowicz, an underappreciated composer perhaps best known for the manner of his death: he perished in an avalanche while skiing. In his short life, he composed works for piano, a few songs and seven works for orchestra, including the three symphonic poems on this disc. The last of these was completed by his pupil, composer Grzegorz Fitelberg. Chopin’s piece here was originally meant as a third piano concerto but, unhappy with how it worked out, he revised it for solo piano. The Polish-American pianist and composer Konrad Binienda orchestrated it for this recording.

The first piece, Stanisław and Anna Oświęcim, was inspired by the legend of the love between a brother and sister in the 17th century. The orchestration resembles Richard Strauss’s tone poems but in some ways Karłowicz pushes the boundaries of tonality even further. The Straussian mood, obvious from the outset, is especially clear at about 4-8 minutes, in a section that sounds as if lifted from Also sprach Zarathustra.

The work, sumptuously orchestrated, moves through a number of scenes depicting various heightened emotional states that the doomed couple experienced. There is a lot of powerful and very skilful writing here. The opening is almost like a “once upon a time” theme which contains some fairly difficult writing for the strings before the piece proper begins. The playing is bright and the orchestral details are very clear. Kudos to the woodwinds who have an awful lot to do here, and who make an excellent case for Karłowicz’s rather overheated depiction of the couple, with some quite violent outbursts along the way. The concluding section, very hushed and reverential, depicts Stanisław’s heartbreak upon learning of his sister’s death.

After the sadness at the end of the first track, Chopin’s Allegro de concert is rather jolly, with a cheerful opening which trips along very happily. The piano, silent for the first almost three minutes, enters with a charming Chopinesque figuration before launching into the development section. The booklet notes suggest that this version started with the piano solo part as a blank slate; none of Chopin’s original orchestration was used. The solo part, as one might expect in early Chopin, is difficult, loaded with filigree writing intermixed with some memorable themes. The opening bouncy theme reoccurs several times in various guises before undergoing a transformation to something much more nocturne-like at about eight minutes; it serves as a delightful connecting passage to the closing section. The ending, generally happy and quite powerful, is superbly played by the pianist and orchestrator Konrad Binienda.

The piece works far better for me in this version: in the published solo piano score, Chopin left many of the tutti sections as plain and frankly rather dull piano writing. They reemerge in full orchestral colours, and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra led by Grzegorz Nowak play beatifully.

We return to Karłowicz for the remainder of the disc. A Sorrowful Tale (Preludes to Eternity) starts very slowly and sadly in the low strings. It builds up to more powerful but still mournful music about three minutes in. The notes say that the piece is meant to depict the thoughts of a man who is contemplating suicide, hardly a cheerful topic. Karłowicz shows the mental anguish similarly to what he did in the preceding symphonic poem. As the work progresses, the mood lightens. There are moments of great beauty, for example when a lovely, almost heart-breakingly yearning theme emerges from the gloom about six-and-a-half minutes in. The music continues in this slightly more cheerful vein until almost the end of the piece, and that lifts the mood of what could otherwise have been a very depressing work. Perhaps this section represents the character rallying as he decides that he would rather live than die. This happier music lasts until it builds to a powerful and anguished climax at about ten minutes in. Then it slowly winds down, back to the darkness and sadness as at the beginning. Again, the orchestration is sumptuous and there is a myriad of detail which sounds marvellous, especially through headphones. The playing and conducting are top notch.

The last piece is Fitelberg’s completion of the unfinished An Episode at a Masquerade. The notes describe the apparent inspiration for the work and what the composer thought about how it would end – but we will never actually know what he originally intended. The opening is again Straussian, with the full orchestra and what sounds like a battalion of percussionists playing a suitably mad introduction. That leads to a section that dances along splendidly before being interrupted by less happy and more dissonant music. The piece is broadly a series of tableaus depicting a couple meeting at a ball. The notes suggest that the woman is refusing the advances of the man with whom she had been presumably involved. The heartbreak is well presented, with more of Karłowicz’s musical reactions to strong emotions.

The nervy, unsettling section about seven minutes in may be a doleful reflection on what had happened before. This music slowly resolves itself into something more settled and then collapses in on itself to a yearningly powerful theme in the strings about eleven minutes in. This is accompanied by very meandering playing high up in the woodwind section; the breath control is superb. A feeling of the tension building persists, waiting for the next massive outburst. Karłowicz manages to dissolve this as the music moves into a very beautiful section from about thirteen minutes onwards. Some gorgeous playing here, and it is very tender and evocative. This is shattered by a loud and mad outburst (similar to the beginning of the work) when the dancing gets underway again.

As the work draws to a close, the whole atmosphere changes. A dark and sinister undercurrent comes to the fore about eighteen minutes onwards, with much more unsettling writing. This gloomy atmosphere continues until almost the end of the work, and includes a melancholy hint at the happier dancing music from the opening. Despite this, the work somehow manages to end beautifully and calmly, having resolved all of the earlier tension. The title implies dancing and there is a lot of dance-like music here, but it is not a strict waltz or mazurka or whatever – more the idea of a dance. This long, complicated piece takes many listenings to understand but it is well worth getting to know: there is much of interest and some impressive orchestration, and remarkable playing.

The disc, with interesting and informative booklet notes, comes in an environmentally friendly cardboard holder with a super cover photograph of a meteor breaking up in the atmosphere over mountains. The orchestra is perfectly attuned to this complex composer’s hyper-romantic writing. It is a great shame that Karłowicz did not live longer. Conductor Grzegorz Nowak and the orchestra, clearly at home in all these works, make an excellent case for them, as they do for the less lavish orchestral world accompanying Chopin’s piece. The soloist, who shows some outstanding pianism here, had previously recorded Chopin’s Etudes op. 10 and four other pieces. The recording is of very high quality, and the orchestral details stand out marvellously clearly.

An afterthought: it seems that Karłowicz was very interested in emotions and how people deal with them, and that may have been the springboard for his compositional imagination. Someone with a good knowledge of his life, and of psychology, might write a most interesting book about that.

Jonathan Welsh

Previous review: Jonathan Woolf

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