It is always fascinating to watch a talented young composer develop and grow--and horribly tragic when that promise is not fulfilled due to an untimely death. Such was the case with Mieczyslaw Karlowicz. Born in present day Lithuania in 1876, he studied in Berlin and Leipzig. His instrument was the violin, but his passion was for composition. With each new piece he demonstrated an increased mastery of form and musical content, culminating in a cycle of six majestic symphonic poems, splendidly recorded on Naxos 8.570295 and 8.570452. Karlowicz's music was profoundly influenced by Borodin, Tchaikovsky, Richard Strauss, and even Sibelius--not to mention lesser lights such as Robert Volkman. Alas, he did not live long enough to fully throw off those diverse influences. An avalanche brought an abrupt end to his career during a skiing trip in the Tatras Mountains in 1909.
The Serenade, one of Karlowicz's earliest scores, is a pleasant, unpretentious work in four short movements lasting just over 22 minutes. The masterly string writing is quite impressive for a 21 year old music student. There is also a wealth of melodic invention, although Karolowicz rarely allows his ideas to blossom fully. With the impatience of youth he moves all too quickly and abruptly from one idea to the next. On this disc, the usually reliable Antoni Wit leads a lackluster performance that does little to obscure the seams between the score's various sections. Far more smoothly flowing and persuasive is the recording by the Berlin Chamber Symphony on the EDA label.
The Violin Concerto, completed less than five years after the Serenade, represents a quantum leap in the composer's development. The solo writing is confident and idiomatic (Karolowicz was, after all, an accomplished fiddler in his own right), and the orchestration is brilliant and bracing. The model was clearly Tchaikovsky's popular concerto and, alas, this score pales in comparison with its great predecessor. Still there is much to enjoy here, although one wishes (as with the Serenade) that Karlowicz had allowed more space to expand upon his themes and enable the melodies to soar. Soloist Ilya Kaler is a talented and critically-acclaimed artist, but here again I prefer an earlier recording--by violinist Konstanty Andrzej Kulka on Accord ACD071. The phrasing is smoother and the violin's fireworks are more effectively integrated into the musical fabric on that disc.