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Jens F. Laurson
Ionarts, April 2012

Best Recordings of 2011 – “Almost List”

Mieczysław Karłowicz’s music is much better than it is original. Even if you’ve never heard of his name, the music will sound familiar, but always in a good way. Influenced by the neo-romantic school and especially works of Wagner and Richard Strauss during his studies in Berlin from 1895 to 1901, Karłowicz further added touches to his work that sound of Brahms, Tchaikovsky, hints of Scriabin, and vaguely dark Scandinavian romanticism.

Almost all of the mentioned influences can be heard in the ambitious “Rebirth” Symphony op. 7 and “The White Dove” Overture op.6 on a terrific new Karłowicz release from Naxos. …Antoni Wit and the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra get the most out of this already gorgeous music, yet. © 2012 Ionarts See complete list

Raymond Tuttle
Fanfare, September 2011

Mieczysław Karłowicz (1876–1909) is one of those composers who “coulda been a contender” had he lived longer. He was killed by an avalanche in the Tatras Mountains—one of the more unusual deaths in the classical music world, to be sure. It surprises me that more of his music has not been reviewed in Fanfare, though. In fact, this appears to be the first review of an all-Karłowicz CD, although a quick look at ArkivMusic reveals a heavy handful of such discs on the Chandos, Accord, and Naxos labels. In fact, Chandos (CHAN 10171) offers the most direct competition to the present CD. It includes the symphony and the Prologue from Bianca da Molena, and adds the Serenade for Strings for good measure. However, Wit’s shorter CD is preferable. On the Chandos disc, conductor Gianandrea Noseda manages the somewhat paradoxical feat of being faster yet more turgid. Wit’s total timing in the symphony is 46:55 and Noseda’s is 39:45, yet it is Wit who is more exciting. (To be fair, Wit also takes an exposition repeat in the first movement that Noseda, unfortunately, does not.) Noseda’s rather gluey reading makes the music sound more bombastic than it really is. When I first heard the Chandos disc, I thought, “Tchaikovsky.” Hearing the Naxos, I thought, “Liszt.” That difference tips the scales for me. (Not that I have anything against Tchaikovsky, generally!)

The symphony’s subtitle suggests Mahler, though, and Chandos’s booklet (not Naxos’s, alas) reprints extensive excerpts from the composer’s program notes. The first movement begins in desolation, but the life force asserts itself and it pushes forward heroically. In the second movement, “the soul sleeps,” and “hopeful, pure visions float before its eyes.” The third movement negates the second, restoring reality and the soul’s striving. Rebirth (or “transfiguration”) finally arrives, after a final struggle, in the last movement, although it is more triumphant and less peaceful than what Richard Strauss predicted in Tod und Verklärung. In other words, Karłowicz set an ambitious task for himself in this symphony. If the music doesn’t quite live up to its program, it’s a strong effort nevertheless, particularly for a composer still in his 20s when he completed it in 1903.

Bianca de Molena (The White Dove) is a drama by Jozafat Nowinski for which Karłowicz composed incidental music. The Prologue is a full-scale overture in everything but name. It is in the same style as the symphony—that is to say, heroic, noble, and dominated by positive energy. Maybe the flavor of Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler is stronger here. The shorter Intermezzo (omitted by Noseda) is calmer, but still warmly emotional. It is worth mentioning that there is nothing on this CD that sounds like “Polish music”—apparently Karłowicz, at least as a composer, was not strongly influenced by nationalism.

If you’re looking for something new in the genre of ripely romantic orchestral writing, Karłowicz’s music is worthwhile, and Wit’s performances are very fine.

William Hedley
MusicWeb International, August 2011

Mieczysław Karłowicz was a Polish composer, though born in what is now Lithuania. His premature death in a skiing accident ensured that his list of works remained very short, but Naxos have recorded almost all of what little there is, and here arrive at his most important work, the “Rebirth” Symphony. If the name is new to you, a list of those composers who came to my mind while listening to this music might be interesting. Tchaikovsky was forty-six years Karłowicz’ senior, Elgar—a surprise entry—his senior by nineteen years, Mahler by sixteen years and Richard Strauss by twelve. The music places him firmly at the end of the line represented by these, and other, composers. The name of Gustav Mahler crops up almost inevitably, given the nature and title of the present work, but in truth, and in spite of the blurb on the back of the Naxos box, there is little in common between this symphony and Mahler’s Resurrection. Karłowicz apparently left a detailed programme discussing the various philosophical ideas behind the work, the essence of which is the soul’s journey towards triumphant victory over fate. This seems closer to Tchaikovsky than to Mahler, though without forgetting Tchaikovsky’s more pessimistic outlook overall. And the parallel may be extended into the music itself, which certainly seems closer to St Petersburg than to Vienna.

There is something about the orchestral writing, and particularly a way of juxtaposing wind and strings, that recalls Tchaikovsky, particularly in the first movement, which opens in gloom and fearful anticipation. But the movement is agitated and stormy in nature rather than tragic, and there are several calm and lyrical passages. In terms of musical vocabulary, this is pure romantic music with a little added spice, and no one who enjoys the music of the composers already cited above will find anything surprising or shocking here. There is nothing particularly individual about the musical language, though the scoring is expert, rich and violin led, quite without the attenuated chamber-like textures of Mahler, and much closer to Richard Strauss. It was in the slow movement that the name of Elgar appeared in my mind, a most beautiful and touching outpouring not dissimilar in atmosphere to the slow movement of Elgar’s First Symphony. There are some dramatic passages in this movement too, but on the whole a radiant calm is evoked, and most beautifully too. The third movement is short and lively, with a gentle, dance-like middle section, from whose rhythms the composer most skilfully engineers the return of the opening music. The finale begins in a mood reminiscent of the symphony’s opening, but this once again is short lived, as only one brief moment of doubt interrupts its ongoing motion towards a triumphant close. This triumph is brought about by way of a stately brass choral which may well remind listeners of the corresponding moment in the finale of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. In that work, however, the triumph at the end seems the result of all that has gone before, whereas here it seems rather easily won.

The Prologue from the earlier incidental music to The White Dove, a play by Jozafat Nowinski, opens with just the kind of exuberant brilliance that is largely absent from the symphony. Elgar comes to mind again, in particular in the writing for brass, though Elgar is never quite so unbuttoned as this; In the South comes close. This is a hugely sonorous piece, full of life and striking musical ideas, and at nearly eleven minutes, a substantial piece too, though surely too long and too big to succeed as an overture to a play. The second piece is an Intermezzo and is the most radiant and contented music on the disc. Calm and untroubled, the big central climax comes closer to Mahler than any other moment in these two works.

Karłowicz was not yet thirty when the symphony was completed, and even younger when he composed The White Dove. One inevitably wants to speculate as to what he might have achieved had he lived longer. Would he have turned away from the lush late-Romanticism of these works and towards Schoenberg, only two years his senior? However, his style would have developed, I rather suspect he would have entered the canon as one of the greats: these works may not be masterpieces, but they are wholly satisfying and enjoyable, well worth the effort for any listener wanting something off the beaten track.

The booklet features an excellent introductory essay by Richard Whitehouse, and the recording is splendid, dramatic, immediate, and perfectly suited to the music. Antoni Wit has made many marvellous recordings with the magnificent Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra, and this one now joins them. The performances are totally convinced and totally convincing, the disc easily worth twice the price, especially if the composer is a new discovery.

Jan Smaczny
BBC Music Magazine, August 2011

Antoni Wit had proved his mettle in fine recordings of Karlowicz’s symphonic poems and does not disappoint here. He has a genuine feel for the structure of the Symphony and handles the bright colours in the two pieces of incidental music to the White Dove superbly.

Donald R Vroon
American Record Guide, July 2011

This is the fourth Naxos Karlowicz recording. This symphony, with the title, Rebirth, has been recorded at least four times…This is the best recording. The Chandos, led by Noseda, is also very good—and also has The White Dove. But the Warsaw Philharmonic sounds wonderful—and idiomatic. One would assume that Polish musicians are more familiar with the composer, whose music has not been played much outside of Poland. Also, Mr Wit is a terrific conductor.

Grego Applegate Edwards
Gapplegate Music Review, May 2011

There’s good reason why you probably have never heard of composer Mieczysław Karłowicz. He was on the verge of international recognition and full musical maturity when he was killed in an avalanche while on a skiing trip. Fortunately for us he had created a small but very interesting body of work in the late-romantic vein. His Symphony in E Minor “Rebirth”, Op. 7 is one particularly appealing example.

We are again fortunate that Naxos is devoting a series of releases to his work. The latest is a stirring Warsaw Philharmonic reading of the Rebirth, with Antoni Wit as conductor (Naxos 8.572487). It is scored for a fairly large orchestra, yet unlike some of the works of his contemporaries it is relatively succinct, occupying a somewhat modest 45 minutes in an age where much longer works sometimes prevailed. Length does not equal breadth, however, for this is an ambitiously sonorous ode that says much in its presentation of inventive thematic material and its discursive development.

Perhaps the first thing that struck me as I listened: in an age where late Beethoven was often the model for the development of larger symphonic form, and composers Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler were the pre-eminent (yet still controversial) symphonic voices of the era, the Rebirth Symphony manages to go its own way, not sounding particularly derivative of these luminaries. If there’s a hint of Wagner in the Andante, and that of Tchaikovsky in the Allegro, it is a hint. For the rest we have a voice on the verge of full-flower, a symphony that deserves attention and adherents, in a performance that deserves our approbation. Like his contemporary Szymanowski, he was one of the leading young lights of the Polish musical renaissance. Unlike Szymanowski, he did not live to see the full realization of his creative potential. Nonetheless we can listen to this Opus 7 without the need to evoke hindsight, for it has much in the way of power and charm. It needs no apology or historical exegesis to win us over.

The disk has the bonus inclusion of his Opus 6, Bianca da Molena (The White Dove), two enjoyable movements of incidental music.

Recommended for all late-romantic symphony buffs and those interested in 20th-century Polish composers., April 2011

Karłowicz died quite young, in an avalanche while skiing, and only a few of his works survive. His sole symphony is contemporaneous with Sibelius’ Second—it was completed in 1903. But unlike the Sibelius work, to which the composer attached no program even though others did, the Karłowicz symphony is intended to represent a soul’s spiritual journey from tragedy to triumph. The composer himself gave it this program, putting the “Rebirth” symphony more or less in the same class as Mahler’s Second (which, completed almost a decade earlier, in 1894, is a larger work and features solo and choral vocal elements). But the programmatic elements are not needed at all for a listener to enjoy the Karłowicz symphony: the progress from despair to triumph is clear enough in the music, and the work’s tonal progress from E minor to E major may remind listeners of the similar treatment of keys in Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5. Yet the Karłowicz symphony is not imitative: fateful timpani rolls, a lovely slow-movement melody on solo cello, fine scoring in the scherzo that pits winds against strings, and a noble brass chorale in the finale all bear a personal stamp that sets the work apart from others to which it bears some superficial similarities. And the two movements from the incidental music to a long-forgotten play called “The White Dove” that fill out this well-played CD are also distinctive in orchestration and effective in their atmospheric evocations. Karłowicz’ few surviving compositions (others were apparently destroyed at the start of World War II) are proving well worth exploring.

David Hurwitz, April 2011

Antoni Wit is unquestionably one of the great, unsung conductors currently working, and he has a terrific orchestra at his disposal. What a difference a sympathetic performance makes in the case of the “Rebirth” Symphony. Chandos issued a perfectly competent version (BBC Philharmonic/Noseda) that also was perfectly forgettable. True, the symphony still promises more than it delivers; it sounds far more conservative than the colorful incidental music to Bianca da Molena. But in Wit’s hands the piece unfolds with a purposeful sense of drama.

What makes Wit’s performance so telling is the fact that even though it’s slower than Noseda’s, it cheats the clock. The difference stems largely from committed string playing, which energizes the substantial first movement and projects its long lyrical lines in a way that justifies its length. The result is a very satisfying performance of a work that ultimately still lacks the last ounce of personality. The engineering is ripe and resonant, and very well suited to the music’s harmonic opulence. If you want this music, this is the disc to get.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, April 2011

Mieczysław Karłowicz belongs to that large group of composers whose early death has left us pondering on the music that was yet to come. Born in Poland in 1876 to a wealthy family, he was killed by an avalanche in the Tatra Mountains when he was just thirty-five and on the brink of joining Szymanowski as the two leading Polish composers of the early 20th century. His legacy was sufficient to stake a place among the outstanding late-Romantics, his only Symphony predating Mahler in style, but showing his grasp of large-scale composition. It was also ambitious in its name, ‘Odrodzenie’ (Rebirth), which sets out the story of human life. Scored in four substantial movements, it was probably started in his student days and completed in 1903. In no way ground-breaking, it is stylistically handed down from the Schumann era, the scoring of considerable accomplishment, the sad cello solo in the second movement looking towards Richard Strauss. Maybe he didn’t quite find a catchy tune for the scherzo, but his finale was suitably dramatic and with a passing relationship with Dvořák. Was he a born symphonist? Well the previous two releases of symphonic poems on Naxos should be your starting point, or maybe start this disc at track 5 with the two pieces of incidental music to Novak’s drama Bianca da Molena (The White Dove). It is descriptive and he finds memorable thematic material expertly handled and developed, the two sections showing a rare talent. Antoni Wit and the Warsaw Philharmonic are a partnership proving to be one of today’s finest, and here they are in superb form, the sound engineering capturing the warmth of their playing. Much recommended.

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