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Ludomir RÓŻYCKI (1883-1953)
‘Phoenix Concerto’ for Violin & Orchestra Op 70 (1944) [22:56]
Pyotr Il'yich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Violin Concerto in D major Op 35 (1881) [37:02]
Janusz Wawrowski (violin), Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Grzegorz Nowak
Rec. 2019, Henry Wood Hall, London
WARNER CLASSICS 9029519170 [60:02]

Although released on the Warner Classics label this disc was recorded and licenced to them under the aegis of the Zygmunt Noskowski Foundation of Poland. This gives some sense of the main purpose of this disc which is to promote Polish music and performers in general and the violin concerto of Ludomir Różycki in particular. According to Wikipedia the genesis of this concerto – the score was written during the 1944 Warsaw uprising and subsequently buried in the garden of Różycki’s Warsaw home before he fled the city and latterly dug up by workmen – led to it being given the nickname “Phoenix”. Curiously, the liner note for this disc makes no reference to the burial of the score instead stating simply that due to the difficulty of the solo part the manuscript “lay dormant for decades in the National Library in Warsaw”.

This is my first encounter with the music of Różycki who was one of the “Young Poland” group of composers alongside Mieczysław Karłowicz, Karol Szymanowski and Grzegorz Fitelberg. On the basis of this piece alone, Różycki does not seem the equal of those more internationally famous composers but of course that is a limited judgement based on this work only. Apparently, the score was not rediscovered until after Różycki’s death so the concerto presented here is a reconstruction by Ryszard Bryła alongside violinist Janusz Wawrowski based on the buried short score and some 87 bars of fully orchestrated material. The liner note here adds to the confusion by stating that “had Ludomir Różycki not decided to reconstruct works burnt in his home during the Warsaw uprising, we would never have had the opportunity to hear this “Phoenix” concerto.” Ultimately, it is the score that we can hear here that counts – quite how it reached this form is interesting but not wholly relevant.

Wawrowski contributes a brief note where he outlines his belief in this work and his involvement in bringing it to the concert hall and recording studio. Wawrowski hears influences of Gershwin (not sure about that), Korngold (yes, but only in a generic ‘cinematic’ fashion) and Tchaikovsky (another yes, but...). The work as presented is in two movements; a seven minute Andante followed by a sixteen minute Allegro deciso. I have listened to the work several times before writing this review and my original impression has remained pretty much unchanged. This is an attractive, easy on the ear and pretty undemanding work. “Undemanding” for the soloist is most certainly is not and Wawrowski plays the entire work with sovereign technical address and impressively/appropriately lush and rich tone. Another Polish link to this disc is that he plays on the 1685 “Polonia” Stradivarius. This was so-named as the first such violin to ‘live’ in post-War Poland. It sounds magnificent with its beautiful sound very well caught by veteran sound engineer Mike Hatch.

Returning to the musical substance of the Różycki concerto, placing it alongside either of the Szymanowski masterpieces or even Karłowicz’s lesser work means it rather pales in comparison. For sure, one of its most notable features is the generally sunny, lyrical and optimistic character of the music given the fraught circumstances of its conception. I wonder if Różycki had returned to the work it might have been finessed into a more substantial work. Again, I do not know how closely Bryla has followed the original orchestration – as played here there is a lot of seemingly spurious percussion writing; a xylophone arabesque here, a flick on a tambourine there, a deep and portentous tam-tam to follow that seems to do little but ‘colour’ the score. For those interested in unusual Romantic Violin Concerti, this is an interesting but not vital addition to the repertoire/CD collection.

The coupling/filler – although it is the longer work – is a very standard Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto. I am not sure what the rationale of coupling these two works is. To be frank you would not buy the disc for the Tchaikovsky – other/more famous/cheaper/more generous/more aptly coupled versions abound. But then would you buy a full price disc for ‘just’ twenty minutes of Różycki? Personally more Różycki or Karłowicz or another Polish concerto would have been much more appealing and intriguing. Make no mistake, Wawrowski plays very very well indeed. He has a lyrical approach to the first movement which he sustains effectively but I must admit finding the playing/accompaniment of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra here refined but plain. Most performances average around the eighteen and a half minute mark for this movement [Aaron Rosand takes seventeen and oh my goodness this is a flashing-eyed performance from first to last], Wawrowski is seconds shy of twenty. [I reviewed Linus Roth four years ago who took 20:26 for this movement – it did not work then either]. Not that that would be a problem in this new recording, but conductor Grzegorz Nowak lacks any imagination in the phrasing or shape of the music so even the big orchestral tuttis have little of the strut or swagger they can and should have. This is off-the-shelf accompanying by a very good orchestra who know the score inside out. Hard not to think that the two-day recording session focussed on the unknown work with the familiar Tchaikovsky put down as quickly as possible. The central Canzonetta is very beautifully played and the finale has relative excitement but not enough to displace any existing favoured version. One other oddity – elsewhere on the disc I thought the balance between soloist and orchestra was effectively managed with the soloist not overly highlighted in the mix. Suddenly in the central movement the woodwind soloists of the RPO – some lovely principal flute and oboe playing especially – come substantially forward in the mix to the point of audible breaths and key actions – a strange choice by producer Anna Barry.

The packaging of the disc is wholly aimed at the Phoenix Concerto from the moody cover shot of a shadowed pensive Wawrowski, eyes shut lit by a the glow of a flaming phoenix (there’s the unhatched egg of another on the table presumably in case this first one doesn’t work), a manuscript is scattered around. Tchaikovsky does not merit a single word in the liner except that Wawrowski mentions him in his note to create a tenuous artistic link. Funding for the project seems to have come from seven Polish organisations and institutions listed in the booklet (which is in English, Polish, German and French). The triumph of Art over adversity is always an uplifting narrative and Różycki’s concerto deserves to be heard for sure. But the great undiscovered 20th Century Violin Concerto it is not.

Nick Barnard

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