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David Fanning
Gramophone, January 2009

Budget recordings of a Polish curiosity are no match for their pricier rivals

…the playing and recording are very much on the same level of serviceable competence. Give the rival BBC Philharmonic versions a spin and within a few bars the difference in class is obvious—in terms of tonal sheen, variety of colour and sheer personality, helped by the greater warmth and immediacy of the Chandos recordings. Run on for a few more minutes, and there is no mistaking the extra drama and clarity of structural profile Noseda and Tortelier bring to the music…

Rob Maynard
MusicWeb International, December 2008

This is the second volume of Naxos’s survey of the six symphonic poems taking up the final opus numbers, 9–14, of Karłowicz’s small but impressive musical output. [Vol 1, 8.570452]

The stories and themes behind the music are once again on the gloomy side, if not downright macabre. Returning Waves was retrospectively linked by the composer, just before his own death, to the idea of a rejected lover’s suicide. Self-inflicted death is also the theme of A Sorrowful Tale: indeed, Karłowicz’s original intention was that the climax of the piece would be capped in performance by a real gunshot (though he ultimately conceded that a stroke on a tam-tam might be a more practical substitute!) And, with “yearning” and “love and death” featuring in the titles of two of the three sections of Eternal Songs, you’ll gather that the composer wasn’t exactly the life and soul of the party. Richard Whitehouse’s booklet essay notes, in passing, some speculation that Karłowicz’s death in mountain accident may actually have a case of suicide.

The earliest work of all on the disc, Returning Waves op. 9, is, though possibly the least innovative and challenging, arguably the most interesting as it is musically quite distinct from the others here. The influence of Tchaikovsky is at its most obvious and for once Karłowicz seems to be putting more emphasis on melody than on pure atmospherics and mood. It is almost as though he yet to fully establish his more characteristic introspective, brooding style and, as a result, Returning waves emerges as the most obviously accessible and appealing of all six symphonic poems.

The contrast with the second piece on the disc, A Sorrowful Tale (Preludes to Eternity), is marked. The writing here is quite impressionistic and much less obviously melodic. I listened to this with eyes closed and, probably thanks to the music’s orchestration (with lots going on in the lower registers) and rhythmic patterns, the image that actually popped into my own head was that of the depths of the ocean. And given, I guess, that the never-ending sea really is probably the closest thing to “eternity” that we have on our planet, I think Karłowicz has done pretty well in managing to put such an appropriate picture into my mind.

Eternal Songs is the only one of the six symphonic poems to be divided up into specific sections—or “songs” as the composer designates them. The first—Song of Everlasting Yearning—is again stronger on atmosphere than in memorable melody. There are plenty of musical phrases that rise up only to fall away again (is real-life “yearning” like that?) but this time Karłowicz is less successful in creating anything more than an abstract picture. I suspect that his inclination towards such pure musical mood-setting is what contemporary critics were getting at when they dismissed many of his compositions as “musical chaos”.

The second “song”—Song of Love and Death—is, from the outset, more obviously lyrical in intent, presumably as it is intended as a more overt depiction of “love”. There are, too, several passages (from about 4:30 onwards, for instance) where Karłowicz writes in an atypically excitable manner, before he embarks on a final section (presumably now changing the focus to “death”—from about 6:40 onwards) that is very reminiscent of Richard Strauss in full valedictory mode. It has to be said that morbid thoughts do seem to bring out his best work.

The final “song”—Song of Eternal Being—continues in rich Straussian mode. An unusually—for Karłowicz!—vigorous opening quickly subsides into pulsating phrases that underpin the usual brooding material, before more vigorous, thrusting themes enter to round everything off in a manner that kept reminding me of the pompous glitter of Strauss’s Festliches Präludium (which the Polish composer’s piece actually predates by five years).

You may gather, from the greater note of enthusiasm in this review, that I enjoyed volume 2 in this series rather more than its predecessor. That, I think, is entirely due to the wider range of musical idioms on display, offering a somewhat more varied and rounded impression of Karłowicz’s style. The performances here—utilising a different and non-Polish orchestra though retaining the authoritative services of Antoni Wit as conductor—do full justice to the music and Tim Handley has done a first class job with the engineering, too.

Ian Lace
MusicWeb International, November 2008

The earliest work in this second collection of Karłowicz’s symphonic poems, Returning Waves begins balefully on low woods, brass and strings. The fact that the composer appeared to have harboured thoughts of suicide makes the darkness of this work’s opening seem apposite. Actually the enigmatic title Returning Waves could be open to all sorts of interpretations. Richard Whitehouse writes, “[Karłowicz] initially hinted at youthful memories being recollected in sadness, whilst just before his death he wrote in explicit terms about suicide provoked by unrequited love…but any more concrete connection between this and his own ‘intended’ suicide in the subsequent skiing accident must remain a matter of speculation.” As the symphonic poem progresses it unfolds a kaleidoscopic panorama of heroic, noble, romantically yearning and strangely mystical episodes with material reminiscent of the symphonic poems of Liszt and the music of Wagner and Richard Strauss. There is little sea evocation here. There is, on the other hand, perhaps, a little more seascape imagery implicit in A Sorrowful Tale.

Not surprisingly, given its title, there is an equally gloomy opening for A Sorrowful Tale. Richard Whitehouse reckons fateful recollection again might be at the root of it and memories of the suicide of the composer’s friend, playwright Jozafat Nowinski. Furthermore, Whitehouse suggests a link with Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. This animated music grows, in its climactic pages ever more menacing and stormy.

The Eternal Songs is the only Karłowicz symphonic poem to be structured in three separate movements. No programmatic details are available—only the titles that speak of a Schopenhauer-like process of self-annihilation. Whitehouse further suggests that the Tatra Mountains could have been a further inspiration and that the music is indebted to Richard Strauss, particularly Also Sprach Zarathustra. ‘The Song of Everlasting Yearning’ has a most affecting yearning melody set amongst turbulent material that suggests a hostile environment. ‘Song of Love and Death’ is more optimistic with a sweetly dreamy melody that builds in fervour to an impassioned climax with swirling, angst-ridden strings. Finally the ‘Song of Eternal Being’ brings the work to a triumphal, heroic conclusion amongst brass fanfares and folklore-like and icy environmental music that is more reminiscent of Sibelius and other Nordic composers.

This CD comes with a bonus. Entering a code printed at the end of the album’s notes allows you to download Szymanowski’s Concert Overture, Op. 12.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, October 2008

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.

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