It is frequently said that had Mieczyslaw Karlowicz lived longer, he would have become among Poland's major composers (the same claim is made in regards to his Russian counterpart, Vasily Kalinnikov and Mikolajus Ciurlionis of Lithuania). Be that as it may, what we have is Karlowicz early example of his absorption of the melodic languages of Tchaikovsky, Strauss, Wagner, and Grieg. Yet, Karlowicz's style and craftsmanship shows him as an idiomatic, enterprising composer, quite pantheistic as often said. Pantheism is a doctrine that God is the transcendent reality of which the material world and humanity are only manifestations. This is an opposite doctrine from Theism, which concludes that there is a "personal" God. His music, a bit like that of Ciurlionis, shows some spellbinding transcendental qualities within and while an avalanche accident in 1909 robbed him of what clearly was to become of and from him, his mark in the history and development of Polish music remains firmly intact and even enriched.
Curiously, the interest in Karlowicz and his music happens to be a rather recent development. In the 1980s, recordings of his music were sporadic and hard to find (the old recordings of his Symphony and Violin Concerto were no longer available for quite some time). A serious glimpse of his style and development was opportuned by the recordings of his symphonic poems, courtesy of Jerzy Salwarowski and the Silesian Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra (under the DUX Records label-reissued into CDs in 1993). In more ways than one, that album remains a milestone even in its day. Not to say that the performances and its recordings were states of the art, but the playing by all involved shows care and admiration. But the sumptuousness and details were in some ways robbed by the rather shallow, one-dimensional recordings and a competent yet a fairly slipshod and uncomfortable ensemble.
Such problems disappear in this Chandos recording, with Yan Pascal Tortelier and the BBC Philharmonic outstripped Salwarowski and his Silesian in every way possible (aided by Chandos' sound that continues its state of the art recording tradition). With the visionary pictorialism and coloring of Karlowicz' works as vital as they are here, the orchestra and its conductor must be masters of tone painting; that is, to bring out the pantheistic peculiarities to their fullest effects. This is what Tortelier and the BBC achieved and with great results. And Karlowicz' individual attributes are quite apparent even in his "Revival" Symphony (otherwise known as "Rebirth" or "Renaissance" Symphony). The Eternal Songs (1906) is a good case in point. The first movement "Song of Everlasting Yearning" is gloomy in outlook, quite detached in mood that in ways evokes Rachmaninov's "The Isle of the Dead" and the "Die Toteninsel" movement from Reger's Bocklin Suite. The tragic underpinning is there, though with greater quiet subtlety in disturbance than in, say, Tchaikovsky's Voyevode. The same attribute continues into the first half of "Song of Love and Death" before glimpses of hope enter. But even the finale "Song of Eternal Being" remains mystical and transcendental.
The next two symphonic poems are likewise attractive. "Slanislaw and Anna Oswiecim" (1907) was inspired by a painting of Stanislaw Bergmann (1862-1930). It tells a tale of an incestuous love between the siblings and their intense struggles in maintaining it. The piece is pretty much a mixture of love, conflicting emotions, confusion, and perhaps unresolved resolution. This is what Karlowicz brings out in this piece. He was not a master of story telling as was Strauss and Tchaikovsky, but I like clear cutting portrayal of the lovers and events which surround them. The range of emotions this piece brings forth is wide and even the funeral march have some very effective poignancy in it. I once wondered whether Hugo Alfven was familiar with this piece when composing his Fourth Symphony "Fran Havsbandet" twelve years later. Nevertheless, Karlowicz' next tone poem, Lithuanian Rhapsody (1907), is more inward looking, quite introspective in tone and a Slavic feel to it in the outer sections. Somehow some of the string writings evokes a rather Nordic sound world exemplified by, say, Sibelius and Atterberg. But, the middle sections of this piece is quite variational in design, with a certain playfulness and sparkle especially at 12'12". Again, Tortelier and his orchestra paint this work with some vivid and imaginative strokes of paint.
Now, that Volume I gives us other dimensions behind Karlowicz' art, Volume II expands it more wondrously with the same first class orchestra and a very poetically inclined conductor, Gianandrea Noseda.