Evening of tone poems

So far at the Easter Festival, the influences of painting on music have manifested themselves most extensively on Monday in the symphonic poems of Mieczysław Karłowicz and Max Reger, and, taking into account an exhibition of Józef Wilkoń’s works Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, which accompanies the festival at the Warsaw Philharmonic, also in Richard Strauss’s Don Quixote, although this symphonic poem makes a direct reference to the legendary mock-heroic poem by Miguel de Cervantes. They were performed by the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra led by the Dutch conductor Hubert Soudant.


Polish music lovers are filled with pride when they hear the works of Mieczysław Karłowicz. All of his symphonic poems are worthy of European masterpieces – the composer had a flair for melodic ingenuity, his works are masterfully orchestrated, with dense polyphony; this especially concerns the poem presented on Monday,  Stanisław and Anna Oświecim, Op. 12 (1908), a Polish version of Romeo and Juliet. It was based on a tale of the passionate but incestuous love of brother and sister, which receives a papal dispensation but the siblings never marry because Anna dies, as does Stanisław shortly afterwards. For Karłowicz,  the direct inspiration for composing this powerful, dramatic work was a painting by Stanisław Bergman, a student of Jan Matejko, and his score strikingly juxtaposes three clear motifs: Stanisław, Anna, and the fate motif.

A completely different musical language emerged in the Vier Tondichtungen nach Arnold Böcklin, Op. 128, one of the best works of Max Reger (1913). It was inspired by symbolic paintings of Arnold Böcklin, a Swiss painter living in Italy, author of the famous Isle of the Dead (he created five versions in all). Sergei Rachmaninov admired this painting so much that he composed an emotionally dense symphonic poem with the obsessive motif of death. Reger’s poems were composed five years after Rachmaninov’s work – the German composer made references to several of Böcklin’s paintings, including The Isle of the Dead. The first poem, entitled The Hermit Fiddler, is a kind of archaized orchestral idyll, in which for almost the entire work a solo violin soars above the tutti strings and woodwinds. The solo was performed by Maria Machowska, the concertmaster of the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra, who emphasized the composition’s lyrical atmosphere. The second poem – Playing in the Waves – is lively and playful, and the orchestra imitates the motion of the waves. The third – Isle of the Dead – is characterized by sombre tones, and the fourth, entitled Bacchanale, inspired by several paintings by Böcklin, is marked by the orchestra’s violent climaxes. This highly interesting work needs the hand of a visionary conductor.


In the second half of the concert we were treated to Richard Strauss’s Don Quixote, in which three instruments intertwine: solo violin, viola, and cello. The cello speaks on behalf of the Knight of the Woeful Figure – this truly stunning part was performed by the greatest virtuosos of this instrument, such as Pablo Casals and Mstislav Rostropovich. On Monday it was played by the Israeli Amit Peled, who had Pablo Casals’s 1733 Matteo Gofriller marvelous cello. Indeed, the tone of this extraordinary instrument resembles the timbre of a human voice. Cervantes’ Don Quixote is a parody of the chivalric epic, and Richard Strauss aptly grasped the ironic substance of the great Spanish novel. This musical epic uses very impressive means of instrumental colour and complex polyphony to depict successive episodes from the life and exploits of Don Quixote (theme with variations). The knight errant takes a flock of sheep as an imperial army, monks as enchanters, and a peasant woman as a noble lady. In The Ride through the Air, Richard Strauss even uses a wind machine. Under the baton of Hubert Soudant, Don Quixote sounded evocatively and at times very characteristically. The Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra handled this extremely difficult work very well.

Anna S. Dębowska

Monday, 10 April, 7:30 pm, Warsaw Philharmonic Concert Hall

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(Polski) 28. Wielkanocny Festiwal Ludwiga van Beethovena