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ClassicsOnline Home » KARLOWICZ, M.: Symphonic Poems, Vol. 2 (Wit) - Powracajace fale / Smutna opowiesc / Odwieczne piesni
Mieczysław Karłowicz’s six symphonic poems, composed between 1904-09, are the pinnacles of a career tragically ended when he perished in an avalanche during a solitary mountain hike. His fame as one of the outstanding Polish composers of his generation rests on these highly original, lushly-scored masterpieces, the first, second and fifth of which are included on this second volume. Bitterly criticised by contemporary Polish critics as examples of ‘modernist chaos’, these splendid Neo-Romantic works show both Karłowicz’s intense admiration for Wagner, Tchaikovsky and Richard Strauss, and the scale of his own achievement. Volume 1 is available on Naxos 8.570452.
By David Denton
This second volume of symphonic poems completes the major orchestral works of Mieczyslaw Karlowicz, his tragic early death robbing Poland of its most exciting new composer in the early 20th century. Born in 1876, the son of a wealthy Polish family, he was seemingly killed by an avalanche while skiing in the Tatra Mountains. Originally a violinist who turned his attention to composition, he had, by his death at thirty-five, shown he was among the outstanding late-Romantics. The present disc, which contains the First, Second and Fifth, completes the six massive tone poems. It was the inference of suicide as the possible scenario to the first two poems—Powracajace fale (Returning Waves) and Smutna opowiese (Preludia do wiecznosci) (A Sorrowful Tale (Preludes to Eternity))—that gave rise to conjecture that his death was not an accident. The fifth poem, Odwieczne piesni (Eternal Songs), is in three distinct movements, ending in hope of eternal life. Karlowicz was a master of orchestration that could turn less than promising thematic material into impassioned statements. Maybe if I were hypercritical I would point to the fact that he was obsessed by sadness, and though each piece passes through a wide dynamic range, that aspect is too frequently used. The first volume found Wit conducting his superb Warsaw National Philharmonic, and here he moves to the New Zealand Symphony who give him their all. They are not quite in the same exalted league, but are persuasive enough to continue my deep admiration for the composer. Certainly the New Zealand sound quality is outstanding.
Mieczysław Karłowicz (1876-1909)
Returning Waves • A Sorrowful Tale • Eternal Songs
Although he left only a handful of compositions at the time of his death, in an avalanche while skiing in the Tatra Mountains, Mieczysław Karłowicz yet ranks among the most important Polish composers of the generation that came to be fronted by Karol Szymanowski. Born into a wealthy academic family at Wiszniew (in what is now Lithuania), he had initially trained as a violinist but, after his arrival in Berlin, where he studied between 1895 and 1901 with Henryk Urban, turned increasingly to composition. Several sets of songs and piano pieces represent his first published work, but the Serenade for Strings (1897) demonstrates no mean grasp of the larger musical forms, an ability such as Karłowicz further consolidated with the incidental music for Jozafat Nowinski’s drama The White Dove (1900, the Rebirth Symphony (1902), whose relatively compact and ‘Classical’ four-movement design is overlaid with a conceptual programme typical of its era, and the three-movement Violin Concerto (1903) which proved to be his last overtly abstract composition.
The remainder of Karłowicz’s all too brief career was taken up with a series (though not intended as such) of symphonic poems that evince a strong attraction to the pantheistic and existential tendencies as found in the philosophers Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, together with the attributes of solitude and an emotional pivoting between fervent affirmation and stark despair which tend to be a natural corollary to such thinking. The three works on this disc are respectively the first, fifth and second from that loose sequence [with the other three symphonic poems having been recorded on Naxos 8.570452].
Composed in 1904, Powracające fale (Returning Waves) formed the template for all of Karłowicz’s subsequent pieces. Its evocative but determinedly vague title is open to various interpretations. The composer himself initially hinted at youthful memories being recollected in sadness, while just months before his death he wrote in explicit terms of suicide provoked by unrequited love, quoting from Turgenev to that effect, but any more concrete connection between this and his own ‘intended’ suicide in the subsequent skiing accident must remain a matter of speculation. The present work unfolds over five continuous sections, and are given their formal focus by a three-note motif that discreetly affords unity however elaborate the music’s textures and opulent its expression.
Baleful brass chords and resigned strings set the tone for much of what follows, while bass clarinet and horns over lower strings bring about an intensifying of mood with a motif that latterly appears on bassoon before the return of the opening brass chords. The second section commences with an appreciable change of texture, trumpets and percussion making way for a heroic theme on the horns which is complemented in the third section by an expressive melody for the clarinet. This unfolds at length on strings, reaching a soulful climax before subsiding into a noble chorale for wind (a transformation of the initial chords). Tension increases with the onset of the fourth section, as the music reaches an animated augmentation of the heroic theme then trumpets herald the return of the expressive theme. An increase in tempo brings about the main climax with skirling wind and strings, but this is short-lived and makes way for the fifth section in which material from the work’s opening is freely reprised (but largely in its original scoring). A noble string threnody, then fragmentary woodwind exchanges, see the work through to its sombre and fatalistic close.
Much the shortest of all Karłowicz’s symphonic poems, Smutna opowieść (A Sorrowful Tale) took shape between April and July 1908. Again, a scenario of fateful recollection and suicide is attendant on the music (though this may have been occasioned by the suicide of the composer’s friend, playwright Jozafat Nowinski), and the subtitle Preludes to Eternity implies a Nirvanalike withdrawal from the ‘real world’ whose musical antecedents go back as least as far as Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde.
Evolving over two main sections, the piece commences with sepulchral writing for lower strings, soon joined by clarinet and flutes then upper strings as the first climax is reached. The mood opens out considerably as woodwind and brass trade ever more animated gestures, but the initial music presently returns to the foreground. The second section sees this blossom into an expressive passage on strings, before the rest of the orchestra gradually enters and the main climax is attained (note that the composer originally intended this to be capped by a gunshot, but after the first performance decided against this gesture and instead substituted a tam-tam stroke). This descends from its fervent heights into the depths from which the work had emerged, and which ends with a series of densely scored and darkly fateful chords.
Completed early during 1906, Odwieczne pieśni (Eternal Songs) remained the only one of Karłowicz’s symphonic poems to be structured in clearly separated movements. Furthermore, there is not even a speculative programme which can be applied directly to the music, though various indications in the autograph that appear alongside the movement titles tend to suggest a Schopenhauerian process of self-extinction and diffusion, a confirmation, no doubt, of the composer’s increasing attraction to the environment of the Tatra Mountains as the source for his inspirations.
The three sections pursue an unorthodox but effective tonal scheme (F minor–D flat–F), while the music reveals its debt to the tone poems of Richard Strauss in general and Also sprach Zarathustra in particular. The first section, Song of Everlasting Yearning, gradually comes into focus with soulful writing for the woodwind (notably the cor anglais) and strings, gaining steadily in intensity until a powerful climax is reached with brass much to the fore. This presently falls away to leave solo woodwind musing over lower strings, before the initial mood is regained and the music comes to rest on an ambivalent half-close.
The second section, Song of Love and Death, opens rather more affirmatively with a langorous melody that is at first given to violas, but then migrates across the remainder of the string section. This takes on considerable expressive fervour as it builds towards an opulent climax that also brings the most demonstrative music of the whole work, brass and percussion adding to the charged mood. Dying down, this makes way for atmospheric music in which flutes and horns are heard musing against suspended strings; the affirmative music then returning for a fervent and sumptuously scored apotheosis. Although this soon subsides, the rapturous mood is prolonged through to an ethereal close with the upper strings in their highest register.
The brief third section, Song of Eternal Being, sets off with fanfaring brass before it alights on more wistful music for woodwind and strings, for all that the initial impetus has remained intently in the background and latterly breaks through to secure the final climax. As might be expected, this is a nobly wrought peroration—one replete with pealing brass—which sees the whole work through to its triumphal conclusion.
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