The Pearls of Polish Music - Karlowicz
Classical - Orchestral
Mieczyslaw Karlowicz: Violin Concerto in A major Op. 8, Eternal Songs Op. 10
Agata Szymczewska (violin)
Orchestra Sinfonia Varsovia
Jerzy Maksymiuk (conductor)
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Review by Graham Williams - December 18, 2008
Following quickly on the heels of their splendid recording of Karlowicz’s ‘Rebirth Symphony’, BeArTon now give us a coupling of two further very impressive works from this neglected composer’s regrettably small output. Although the opus numbers of the Violin Concerto and the Symphonic Poem are only two apart, the contrast between these two works could hardly be more marked.
Karlowicz’s Violin Concerto Op. 8, written in 1902, is considered to be the last of his early works. It was dedicated to Karlowicz’s teacher, the virtuoso violinist Stanislaw Barcewicz, and received a very successful first performance in Berlin in 1903. Although virtuoso passages abound, particularly in the outer movements, it is the wealth of strikingly beautiful romantic melodies that make the greatest lasting impression on the listener. There seems to be no reason why this concerto should not be as popular as those by Tchaikovsky, Bruch and Elgar, with which it shares similarities, and though it has received a number of recordings, it still requires further exposure in the concert hall.
The 23 year-old soloist, Agata Szymczewska, a new name to me, gives a fresh and committed performance of this optimistic, unpretentious piece. Her entry in the first movement has a fine attack while her rich toned Stradivarius is heard to advantage in the lyrical and contemplative music that appears later. In the ‘Romanza’, that follows the first movement without a break, she makes the most of the luscious cantilena on offer. Only at the end of this movement, taken at a tempo perhaps closer to adagio than the marked ‘Andante, does she have difficulty in sustaining with confidence the long held final note, though elsewhere she rises to the demands of the virtuoso writing with ease. From the blazing, refulgent horns of the opening to the joyful final bars, Jerzy Maksymiuk and the Sinfonia Varvosia provide support for the soloist that could not be bettered.
The mood of the Symphonic Poem ‘Eternal Songs’ (1904-1906) takes us into a different sound world altogether. The titles of this tripartite work ‘Song of Everlasting Yearning’, ‘Song of Love and Death’ and ‘Song of Eternal Being’ aptly describe the mood of what is to be heard in each of them. The music of the first part is gloomy, restless and melancholic. In the wrong hands it could easily ramble, but, in this performance, it benefits from Maksymiuk’s steady forward momentum. The second part is undoubtedly suffused with a fin-de-siècle Wagnerism. The music constantly brings to mind the passion of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde and reflects both Karlowicz’s pantheism and interest in Schopenhauer’s philosophy. The tense expectancy and grandeur of the opening of the final part gradually cedes to a series of huge brass dominated climaxes until it ends in an opulent Brucknerian blaze of glory. Maksymiuk’s magnificent performance does complete justice to this ambitious work.
BeArTon’s recording in 5.0 HD – PCM is superbly spacious, providing both a warm glow to the burnished brass sound as well as a richness to the strings of Sinfonia Varsovia. The soloist in the concerto is quite forwardly balanced, but orchestral detail is never obscured. As in the other issues in BeArTon’s ‘Pearl’s of Polish Music’ series the Concert Studio of Polish Radio provides an ideal acoustic for this music. The SACD comes with excellent background notes about both the composer and these works.
Copyright © 2008 Graham Williams and HRAudio.net
Review by John Miller - December 23, 2008
Following Bearton's recent superb recording of Karlovicz's remarkable Rebirth Symphony by Maksymiuk, we now have the Violin Concerto from 1902-3 and a group of the tone poems. Karlowicz himself was an excellent violinist, invited by no less a teacher than the great Joachim to be a pupil. He thus had no need to consult with violinists about technical matters, so joining Sibelius and Elgar in their idiomatic writing for the instrument.
As with all Karlovich's music, there seems to be an underlying programme, such is the logic and rhetoric of this work. Nonetheless, it follows the standard three movement plan, but with the first movement passing straight into the second movement. The work opens with imposing horn calls, something of a trademark of Karlowicz, and uniquely the first subject is intoned by the soloist in passionate double stops. Double-stopping is something of a signature technique for this concerto, as it is used prominently in each movement.
I listened to three other performances of the Concerto, from Tasmin Little/Brabbins, Nigel Kennedy/Kapszyck and Galina Balinova/Kondrashin. Little is much the fastest, with speeds over a minute shorter per movement, compared with Bearton's Agata Szymczewska, who is the slowest. Little's speed rather counts against her; the double-stopping at the beginning of the first movement sounds snatched, and the performance merely skates over its surface, with a slow movement which doesn't blossom and a breathless finale. Kennedy, enthusiastically discovering Polish music after wedding a Polish wife, is mercurial and quixotic in the first movement, brings out the Elgarian emotions of the slow movement, but to my ears is gritty and too rough with the finale. Balinova's sound is remarkably good for a 1950's recording, and her Heifitz like tone is rich and beautiful. although she is rhythmically square in the concerto's outer movements. It is Agata Szymczewska and Maksymiuk who present the most vivid and committed reading of this woefully neglected concerto. The orchestral playing of the Sinfonia Varsovia is resplendent, and they sound like a much larger band in the Concert Studio of Polish Radio.
Szymczewska taps into Karlovicz's vein of fantasy as well as drama in the Concerto's first movement, with great technical aplomb. At its brilliant and brassy end, the music melts by way of soft horn notes into a magical cushion of sound, over which the soloist spins the long, gorgeous melody of the slow movement. Both soloist and conductor take their time over this, making most of the lovely orchestral details and the rich cantilena. At its end, Karlovicz poses a terrible technical challenge for his soloist; holding on to a very high note in a long, long diminuendo - a breathtaking effect, but cruelly exposed. Taking such a slow speed for the movement means that Szymczewska has her work cut out, and she does display some unsteadiness in her bowing here, the only sign of a technical problem in her performance. Kennedy and Little manage this feat well because of their faster tempos, while Balinova uses quite a wide vibrato on the long note.
In the finale, Szymczewska's twinkling dance bubbles like champagne, much the most joyful and lilting account of this rondo, which also has a fine Big Tune and even makes reference to the first movement themes.
The bulk of Karlovicz's output consists of tone poems, and here we have 'Eternal Songs', not a collection for voice and orchestra, as might be thought, but using the word song in a more philosphical and poetic vein, for orchestra alone. There are versions of 'Eternal Songs' from Naxos and Chandos, but Maksymiuk's performances leave the others standing. While Tortelier and the BBC Philharmonic play the first, 'Song of Everlasting Yearning', as though they were doing a routine and sluggish read-through, Maksymiuk and Sinfonia Varsovia take us more flowingly into a smouldering world of burnished instrumental colour, reach a blazing Brucknerian climax. Time and time again in these works, Karlovicz reveals his superb mastery of orchestration. Maksymiuk makes 'Song of Love and Death' into a Tristanesque ferment, with stunning climaxes, the final one having much of the radiance of Mahler's Resurrection. 'Song of Eternal Being' takes us into the wide open spaces, probably a picture of Karlowicz's beloved Tatra Mountains, laced with distant folk strains.
Such fine performances of wonderful orchestral pieces require a fine recording, and Bearton's HD PCM surround sound gives us a very wide and deep orchestral stage, blossoming into the radio concert hall without excessive reverberation and with perfect focus. To my taste, the solo violin in the concerto is a little too close, almost suffering from the dreaded Huge Violin Syndrome beloved of many producers these days, but others will find no fault with the balance.
Wieczlaw Karlowicz died tragically early, taken by an avalanche in the Tatras at the age of 33. and it is hard not to remember Grillparzer's epitaph on Schubert, "The art of music here entombed a rich possession but far fairer hopes". He was on the point of finally finding his own voice. What music he left us does not deserve oblivion, but recognition internationally. This has begun to happen, with series of issues from Naxos and Chandos as well as Bearton. Do yourself a favour - at least listen to this wonderful violin concerto, and then explore some more.
Copyright © 2008 John Miller and HRAudio.net