About this Recording
8.572274 - KARLOWICZ, M.: Serenade / Violin Concerto (Kaler, Warsaw Philharmonic, Wit)

Mieczysław Karłowicz (1876–1909)
Serenade, Op. 2 • Violin Concerto in A major, Op. 8


Although he left a mere handful of compositions at the time of his death, in an avalanche while skiing in the Tatra Mountains, Mieczysław Karłowicz today ranks high among the composers who constituted the ‘Young Poland’ generation of musicians and whose most famous figure is Karol Szymanowski. Born into a wealthy academic family at Wiszniew (in what is now Lithuania), he initially trained as a violinist but, after his arrival in Berlin, where he studied from 1895 to 1901 with Henryk Urban (an ardent admirer of Richard Strauss) as well as having informal tuition with members from the Philharmonic orchestra, he turned increasingly to composition. Several sets of songs and piano pieces represent his earliest published work (further chamber music was almost certainly destroyed during the bombing of Warsaw in 1939), but the Serenade for Strings already demonstrates no mean grasp of larger musical forms, an ability which was further consolidated by incidental music for Jozafat Nowinski’s drama The White Dove, the Rebirth Symphony whose relatively compact design is overlaid with an ambitious conceptual programme, and the Violin Concerto which proved to be his last overtly abstract composition.

The remainder of Karłowicz’s all too brief career was spent first in Warsaw, where he was active as first a member, then director, of the Music Society and the leader of its orchestra, then, after further study in Leipzig with Arthur Nikisch, in Zakopane, where he pursued his other interests of walking, cycling, photography and skiing. His music from these later years consists of a series (albeit not intended as such) of six symphonic poems that evince a strong attraction to the pantheistic and existential tendencies found in such philosophers as Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, along with the attributes of solitude and an emotional pivoting between fervent affirmation and stark despair that are a natural corollary to such thinking [the first, second and fifth of these symphonic poems are recorded on Naxos 8.570295, while the third, fourth and sixth of the sequence are on 8.570452].

As mentioned above, the Serenade in C is Karłowicz’s first orchestral work. Written under the direct supervision of Urban, it was given its première by him at a concert of student pieces in Berlin on 15 April 1897. Although such pieces by Dvořák and Tchaikovsky had already achieved considerable popularity, while that by his contemporary Josef Suk had been endorsed by no less a figure than Brahms, Karłowicz seems rather to have taken a serenade by the now little known Robert Volkmann as model. Despite this, his work gives notice of an unforced handling of chromatic harmony within a well-defined tonal trajectory.

The March opens with a lively introduction that features pizzicato, then the main theme is an expressive idea with opulent harmonies which takes on greater animation as it proceeds. The trio section is slower and stately, its ingratiating manner duly ensuring a smooth transition back to the main theme. After a yearning chordal sequence has set the mood, the Romance centres on a ruminative theme for the lower strings that is complemented by more ambivalent asides from the violins. These lead into a more restive section, before the initial theme returns even more richly harmonized than before to ensure an ending of rapt serenity. A peremptory call to attention announces the Waltz, whose main theme is suave and sweeping by turns. The central section focuses on a humorous interplay of upper and lower strings, then a slower transformation of the initial theme itself makes way for the waltz measure and a final spirited caper to the finish. The Finale is the shortest and simplest of the four, its strutting theme complemented by a slower and moodier idea which touches on aspects of those from earlier movements, but the main theme soon returns to see the work through to its vigorous close.

The Violin Concerto in A was completed in December 1902 and received its first performance in Berlin on 21 March the following year, together with the Rebirth Symphony. It was written for and dedicated to Polish virtuoso Stanisław Bacewicz, with whom Karłowicz had studied as a violinist during the early 1890s and who may have encouraged his protégé to turn to composition as the best outlet for his talents. Understandable, then, that he should have accepted the invitation to give the première of the concerto, which is as finely conceived and executed for its instrument as any by the composer-performers of that era. Although Tchaikovsky is a primary influence (albeit less so than with the symphony), the piece is by no means derivative in its melodic content and formal thinking; indeed, the G minor Concerto by Bruch may have given Karłowicz the idea of joining the movements into a continuous sequence. All but forgotten in the wake of the First World War and then as the twentieth century ran its course, the concerto has been rediscovered by a number of violinists over the last decade and can now stand as, if not the most personal, then probably the most immediately attractive of the composer’s orchestral works.

The first movement opens with a commanding introduction on horns and strings, the soloist entering with a forthright theme that in turn leads to an animated orchestral tutti then, following a passionate transition from the soloist, a second theme that ranks among its composer’s most generous melodic inspirations. A brief orchestral codetta prepares for a central section that begins hesitantly before drawing on both of the principal themes in an increasingly impulsive development, building to a climax from where the soloist launches a brief but virtuosic cadenza. The first theme is soon recalled then, after a chorale-like passage for woodwind, the second theme returns no less expressively than before, the soloist leading the music through to a lively coda that takes in elements of both main themes prior to what seems intended as a forthright conclusion on brass and strings. The horns, however, continue with an inward passage that actually marks the start of the second movement. Its main theme, announced by the soloist, is a long-limbed and eloquent melody offset by the more headstrong idea that occupies the central section. This in turn provokes a surge of powerful emotion from the orchestra which dies down to mark the return of the main theme, now allotted to the lower woodwind and elegantly decorated by the soloist before the latter takes it up for a warmly expressive restatement which, in turn, makes way for the tranquil close. After the briefest of pauses, fanfaring brass and strings announce a finale whose main theme is robustly stated by the soloist and is complemented by a more subdued idea. The first theme now returns, followed by a another, more relaxed idea announced by strings. This is taken up by the soloist, who then recalls the main theme as part of a dexterous ascent to the climax and a spirited final flourish.

Richard Whitehouse

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