GMCD 7360/61 – Czeslaw Marek – Orchestral Works

Ingolf Turban (violin), Philharmonia Orchestra, Gary Brain (conductor)

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American Record Guide – January / February 2013

As with the six discs of piano, chamber, and vocal music by Czeslaw Marek (1891-1985) recently reviewed (Sept/Oct), this two-disc set of his orchestral works was also originally issued (on single discs) by Koch-Schwann a decade or so ago and is now reissued by Guild. The eight-disc series brought this Polish-born composer who lived most of his long life in Switzerland to long-delayed international attention for the first time, and it’s good to see it back.
Marek began as a late-romantic (emulating Brahms, Dvorak, and Reger and studying with Karl Weigl and Hans Pfitzner), quickly assimilated Gallic influences (Fauré and Ravel), and went on to absorb more from Mahler, Busoni, Szymanowski, Janacek, Kodaly, Bartok, even American jazz. Despite so many influences and the resulting enlargement of his musical vocabulary (and his sometimes surprising stylistic shifts), his artistic temperament remained constant: sensuous but elegant, ardent but polite, imaginative but fastidious. That said, it must be admitted that his output is uneven in quality. Though everything is professionally crafted, some efforts seem superficial, some a bit generic, some labored. Still, his best works are quite wonderful and make discovering this composer worthwhile.
Of the six very-well-played-and-recorded pieces here, four are early, completed when Marek was just out of his teens and the First World War was wreaking havoc on Western civilization: Four Meditations, Capriccio, Sinfonietta, and Serenade for violin and orchestra (written for his wife, a violinist). These are entirely respectable efforts but (with the notable exception of one movement) lack memorable ideas and real individuality. Their sumptuous scorings and ample dimensions embody a fair amount of contrapuntal inter-weavings, but without the transparency and easily apprehensible ideas needed to pull the listener in. Or at least this listener; others happier with undistinguished-but-pleasant late-romantic music will enjoy these pieces more than I do.
The exception is the central movement of the Sinfonietta, a gentle and lilting five-minute barcarolle that prefigures the melodic inspiration of Marek’s later masterpieces, the 1929 Rural Scenes and 1934 Village Songs (both settings of Polish folk poetry for soprano and orchestra), reissued on Guild 7366 (Sept/Oct 2012). These lovely creations are midway in manner between Canteloube’s Songs of the Auvergne and Bartok’s Village Scenes, and every bit as beautiful, deeply felt—and memorable —as either.
Two works from the late 20s—and Marek’s maturity—fill out the program: the 1926 Suite for Orchestra and 1927 Sinfonia. The five-movement Suite is immediately appealing and indeed was hailed as a great success in its first performances. Though it adopts baroque patterns, the language is Impressionist. The opening Prelude, with its glowing, diaphanous arabesques, is gorgeous, buoyant, magical. This is followed by a stately, evocative Sarabande, a peasant-dance scherzo (Burla) that evokes a ballet of gravity-defying elephants on tiptoes, a brisk and lithe Gigue, and to finish, a presto Toccata. At once charming and brilliant, Marek’s Suite meets Honegger’s qualifications for worthy modern music: it will delight the multitudes but also offers enough subtleties to satisfy the connoisseur.
Marek’s Sinfonia is more ambitious but less easily grasped on first hearing, or indeed several hearings. It’s a single huge (33-minute) movement, with an introductory arising-from chaos prologue and a long, slow, quiet epilogue; these premonitory and valedictory bookends enclose a luxuriant and highly-varied allegro (with many tempo changes and some thunderous climaxes) that the notes identify as a sonata form based on several Slavic-inflected themes. The formal outlines are not easy to hear (though a single three-note motive stands out sharply); and, as an early commentator pointed out, Sinfonia is more “a lyrical tone-poem” than a conventional symphony. Listeners drawn to, say, Josef Suk’s large-scale symphonic works will probably feel right at home with the piece. People more comfortable with more lucid structural schemes (like me) may find their attention—or at least their sense of strong forward progress toward a discernable goal—beginning to wane well before Sinfonia achieves its long-postponed conclusion.