About this Recording
8.570452 - KARLOWICZ, M.: Symphonic Poems, Vol. 1 (Wit) - Stanislaw i Anna Oswiecimowie / Rapsodia litewska / Epizod na maskaradzie
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Mieczysław Karłowicz (1876-1909)
Lithuanian Rhapsody • Stanisław and Anna Oświecimowie • Episode at a Masquerade


Although he left the merest handful of compositions at his seemingly accidental 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 dominated by Karol Szymanowski. Born into a wealthy academic family at Wiszniew, in what is now Lithuania, he 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 earliest published work, but the Serenade for Strings (1897) demonstrates no mean grasp of larger musical forms; an ability that was further consolidated by incidental music for Jozafat Nowinski’s drama The White Dove (1899-1900), the Rebirth Symphony (1900?-1902) whose compact four-movement design is pointedly overlaid with an ambitious conceptual programme, and the three-movement Violin Concerto (1902) which proved to be his last composition that was not determined by extra-musical considerations.

The remainder of Karłowicz’s brief career was taken up with a series (though not intended as such) of symphonic poems that between them evince a strong attraction to the pantheistic and existential tendencies such as he had no doubt absorbed from the philosophies of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, along with the quality of solitude and the pivoting between fervent affirmation and stark despair which by then had become a natural corollary to such thinking. The three works on the present disc are the third, fourth and sixth of that loose sequence.

Written in the latter half of 1906, and given its première by Grzegorz Fitelberg in Warsaw on 25 February 1909 (just seventeen days after the composer’s death), Lithuanian Rhapsody had a genesis that goes back to 1900 when Karłowicz collected much of the material while on vacation at his family estate. He stated, “I tried to pour into it all the grief, sadness and eternal chains of this people whose songs had filled my childhood”, and a sense of nostalgia mingled with regret is everywhere apparent.

Out of sepulchral gestures in lower woodwind and strings emerges an undulating motion that prepares for the first melody, which sounds evocatively on flutes and clarinets. The remaining woodwind and strings gradually enter to fill out the instrumental texture, before the work heads into its second section with a more expressive theme that is shared between the strings, though latterly adorned by some piquant woodwind contributions. This ushers in a short-lived climax, before drawing into a third section of langorous repose. A serene melody now appears on strings, casting its beneficent aura over proceedings, before a sudden flourish brings the fourth section and a lively new theme (audibly related to the previous melody) that leads to the work’s principal climax. This subsides relatively quickly, and the fifth section returns to the opening melody and also to the melancholic environs from which the work emerged and in which it now concludes.

Written during the greater part of 1907, and first performed by the composer in Warsaw on 27 April 1908, Stanisław and Anna Oświecimowie was to become the most successful, both critically and publicly, of Karłowicz’s symphonic poems and went on to retain a place in the Polish orchestral repertoire until long after his death. It was inspired by a painting by Stanisław Bergmann, which draws on the seventeenth-century legend concerning the incestuous love between two siblings. Stanisław at length journeyed to Rome where he gained the Pope’s blessing on their union, only to return home to find his sister dead. He himself died soon afterwards, and they were buried in the chapel at Krosno. Karłowicz evokes this sad tale in a piece drawing on elements of sonata design to give it formal focus and expressive consistency.

The work is launched on strings and brass with impetuous music that soon assumes a more sinister hue on lower woodwind before easing into the expressive melody that is first heard on oboe. Commented on by the other woodwind and horn, this presently migrates to the full orchestra where muted brass sound a note of incipient danger, before heading into a fervent climax on the oboe melody. Dying down slowly, a pensive pause is reached before the central section sees first an intensive reworking of the initial music, then the radiant reappearance of the oboe theme on woodwind and strings. Uneasy gestures on muted strings and bass clarinet at length provoke the work’s main climax, in which the thematic material becomes irredeemably tinged with tragedy. From here, a funeral march sets out with stark phrases from the upper woodwind and strings over a tolling accompaniment; building to a culmination of anguished inevitability, this soon subsides into a sombre postlude that closes the work in duly fatalistic terms.

Karłowicz’s final symphonic poem, Episode at a Masquerade, has a complex and uncertain history. The composer had worked on the piece from October 1908 until his death the following February, leaving an autograph which apparently extended for 473 bars. Fitelberg took this in hand in the summer of 1911, working on a completion for over two years that finally had its première in Warsaw on 11 February 1914. Unfortunately the autograph disappeared during the Second World War, making it impossible to deduce from the extant sketches just how ‘interventionist’ his completion really is. Even the title is not confirmed in Karłowicz’s correspondence, though his contemporaries agree that its subject-matter revolves around the tense encounter between estranged lovers and their inability to sustain a rapport in the surrounding activity. Karłowicz treats this as an extended sonata form, whose reprise and coda are realised by Fitelberg with great imagination if not necessarily in accordance with the composer’s actual intentions.

The work opens with an innate sense of occasion, flourishes on brass and percussion heralding a suave theme that unerringly conjures up an opulent scene. Extensively decked out with subsidiary detail, this at length leads into the more relaxed transformation of its main motifs, building gradually to what seems likely to be an expansive restatement of the theme, but which is suddenly cut short to reveal an altogether more sombre and introspective theme on violas and lower woodwind. This unfolds at some length, creating an aura of becalmed emotion, before an oscillating flute figure presages a full restatement of the second theme on strings. This tapers away to a handful of solo strings and harp, from where elements of the initial theme now begin to filter through. A pause, then the opening music bursts in with a vengeance; investing the work with a renewed sense of momentum as it moves towards a climactic restatement of the first theme, but now suffused with the pensiveness that informs its successor. For this reason, any real affirmation can only be shortlived, and the music heads into a lengthy epilogue recalling both of the main themes against a pervasive melancholy that sees the work through to its distinctly fatalistic close.

Richard Whitehouse

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