By Dennis D. Rooney
Wrocław in Poland was the German city of Breslau until 1945, when it and the entire German Province of Lower Silesia were transferred to Poland at the Potsdam Conference.
Located in Poland’s Southwest, Wrocław is today a city of 600,000. Its orchestra, the Wrocław Philharmonic, was established in 1945 and their 13-city U. S. tour this season included two Kravis Center appearances. I heard the first program on Monday, Jan. 13. Two works by Polish composers shared the program with the Brahms First Symphony.
Witold Lutosławski (1913-1994) and the younger Krzysztof Penderecki (b. 1933) are considered the leading Polish composers to flourish after World War II. The Symphonic Variations was first performed in 1939 and is one of Lutosławski’s earliest surviving compositions, as it was one of only a few works that he managed to take with him when he fled Warsaw in 1944. All the rest were destroyed in the aftermath of the Warsaw Uprising.
Brilliantly orchestrated, the Symphonic Variations reflects its composer’s early interest in folk music, before his embrace of the 12-tone technique and aleatoric procedures. The theme and nine variations possess great audience appeal, and received the best performance of the evening, conducted by Music Director Giancarlo Guerrero, who occupies a similar post in Nashville.
The Szymanowski Violin Concerto No. 1 (Op. 35) was heard next. Janusz Wawrowski was the soloist and played a 1685 Stradivari dubbed “Polonia,” which emerged from years of concealment before Wawrowski received it in 2018.
Karol Szymanowski (1882-1937) was the early 20th century’s leading Polish composer until his death. His 1917 concerto is extraordinarily atmospheric. A gamut of influences from Richard Strauss to Maurice Ravel is contained in its three movements, which are played without pause. A dreamy reverie is variously interrupted by passages of puckish humor, soaring melody, erotic tension with an orchestral palette of stentorian brass, iridescent strings and twittering woodwinds.
Despite those attractions, the performance was unfortunately stillborn. Wawrowski was too often hard to hear against heavy and often unbalanced orchestral sonority. That may have been due at least in part on his placement on stage, which seemed farther forward than ideal. The results were too often incoherent and would have perplexed anyone hearing the work for the first time, particularly given the exemplary results achieved in the preceding Lutosławski.
The Symphony No. 1 (in C minor, Op. 68) of Johannes Brahms, heard after the intermission, was hobbled by many of the same deficiencies except that its familiarity would have successfully anchored the audience’s attention.
Nevertheless, thick textures, seedy sounding and often out-of-tune strings, and Guerrero’s apparent lack of a perceptible point of view made much of it heavy going. Tempos were well-chosen but the musical energy was not sustained, nor were the many inner voices attended to properly. Those with thematic significance were often ignored while subsidiary brass parts were unduly prominent. The results were sadly perfunctory.