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Reviewed, Not Necessarily Recommended: Karłowicz, Symphonic Poems

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Mieczysław Karłowicz, Symphonic Poems,
J.Salwarowski / Silesian State PO

Maybe the "Not Necessarily Recommended" tagline is out of place, here. In many ways, this is very much recommended, not the least because the performances yield to none and the music is easy to like. If you were going to let the RNNR-bucket into which this disc was thrown bias you a little against this release, well, don't!

For his op.9 tone poem, Powracająe fale (“Recurring Waves”), Mieczysław Karłowicz (born in 1876) sipped generously from the Wagner goblet. Tannhäuser, specifically, and a few segments are so reminiscent of that overture—others of music from Das Rheingold—as to border the comical. That said, it’s also all very lush and beautiful, as it should be, with those kinds of models. My friend and colleague Bob McQuiston, who first brought Karłowicz to my attention, called Recurring Waves a “gorgeously melancholic work, reportedly the product of Karlowicz's preoccupation with suicide. “ The same could be said of Smutna opowieść (“A Sorrowful Tale”), op.13, and the Odwieczne pieśni (“Eternal Songs”), op.10.

Influenced by the neo-romantic school and especially works of Wagner and Richard Strauss during his studies in Berlin from 1895 to 1901, Karłowicz created his violin concerto (Tasmin Little and Nigel Kennedy have recorded it for Hyperion and EMI, respectively), several opera of songs, a string serenade, and six of these symphonic poems. The last had to be finished by Grzegorz Fitelberg after Karłowicz died in an avalanche, skiing in the Tatra Mountains, 100 years ago on February 8th. (What a fittingly ironic end for a fatalistic pantheist.)

Ears intoned to the type of music Karłowicz wrote will find that the music is much, much better than it is original—which is to say: well worth hearing even if it reminds of better known names that lurk behind every fourth bar. Especially the works that came after op.9 are superior in that they integrate their outside influences (Richard Strauss is all over “Stanisław and Anna Oświecim”) much more organically. The Lithuanian Rhapsody might represent a dip in inventiveness along that upward trajectory, but its billowing, vaguely Scandinavian romanticism is a soothing contrast to the red-meat sound world of Wagner / (Brahms + Scriabin) found elsewhere.

These DUX recordings that contain all six tone poems are re-releases, but they are very welcome for bringing them together on one two-CD set. They have also been recorded for Naxos, but the direct competition comes from Yan Pascal Tortelier and Gianandrea Noseda with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, whose Chandos recordings were largely responsible for making Karłowicz’ name better known in the West. Not having heard the 1981/83 radio recordings of the Silesian Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra under Jerzy Salwarowski before, I had considered the Chandos recordings a natural front runner, not the least for their very present sound. Alas, these forces perform with the unalloyed enthusiasm of playing original, truly meaningful music (even where it isn’t), the playing is rarely inferior to the BBC band (remarkable, given that they are live performances), and the sound is good.

There are moments that warrant enthusiastic recommendation, others that wish to caution against too-high expectations. If you get excited about Marx, Madetoja, or Alfvén, this should be up your alley.

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