The Symphonies of Maliszeweski

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MALISZEWSKI: Symphonies Nos. 1-4. Joyful Overture. Scherzo & Overture Honoring Schubert. Bajka (Fairy Tale). Legend / Jósef Elsner Opole Philharmonic Orch.; Przemysław Neumann, cond / Dux 1716-18

I seriously doubt that many readers of this blog have ever heard of composer Witold Maliszewski (1873-1939); I certainly hadn’t. Well, it turns out he was Jósef and Leonia Maliszewski’s kid, originally studied piano with his mom, and at the age of 16 enrolled in a music school that was a branch of the Russian Music Society. There, he studied composition with the well-known Mikhail Ippolitov-Ivanov, who later became director of the Moscow Conservatory, and later still continued his education at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, so he was well-grounded in the Russian musical style.

Thus we know going into this album that Maliszewski wrote in a Romantic style, and moreover one influenced by Russians more than Poles, but upon hearing his music one notes that it is by no means cookie-cutter music. Maliszewski clearly developed his own musical style, and if only a little of it was based on real Polish music it had what I hear as authentic Polish rhythms. It was also interesting music; it did not get bogged down in treacly tunes and beat them to death, but rather alternated lush Romantic melodies with arresting rhythmic passages. He also had a keen ear for harmony and knew how to quickly shift gears here and there based on pivot-points in the underlying chords. Thus even from the time of his first symphony (1902), one hears not an insipid Russian music clone, like Anton Rubinstein, but a mature composer who knew what he was about and tried to write music that was original and striking without employing modern techniques from the French and German composers of his day.

As a matter of fact, at about the five-minute mark in the first movement of his first symphony, I heard motifs reminiscent of Hector Berlioz, surely a little-played and little-admired composer at that time…but there it is. If anything, Maliszewski’s method of writing orchestral music seemed to me to have more in common with not only Berlioz but also with Dvořák, and that’s not a bad thing. Even the “Andante” of the first symphony has a good forward movement and moments of double-Time passages that are quite exciting. In the Scherzo, as the melody line runs upwards, the harmony moves downwards chromatically. The Joyful Overture, from the same year, is likewise filled with themes that sound Slavic, partly Russian, partly Czech or Hungarian.

Maliszewski’s cheerful but interesting style is also heard in the second symphony, from 1905.  Of course, when heard sequentially like this, one notes the similarity of themes and the way he handles them; he was no Brahms or even a Dvořák; but within his own style he was interesting to hear and consistent in his working methods. Yet this symphony did not strike me as being as eclectic and original as the first.

Although again being in four movements, the third symphony (1907) has a much more pronounced Russian-style theme in the first movement, moody and restless, in which he again plays with the harmony (particularly around the 10:40 mark). Here, Maliszewski returns to the more eclectic style of his First Symphony, but adds some new wrinkles like the third movement, an extended theme-and-variations which runs over 15 minutes, and several of these variations are indeed ingenious. (It seems to me that only the First and Third Symphony have been previously recorded.) The finale is as brilliant and exciting as that of the Tchaikovsky Fourth.

Maliszewski’s own Fourth Symphony, dating from 1923, was dedicated to his “Newborn and Recovered Homeland,” Poland, which had finally become independent and named Ignacy Jan Paderewski its Prime Minister in 1919. This is the only one of his symphonies to use Polish-based themes, for obvious reasons, and here, too one senses even further growth as a composer. There is a wonderful counter-melody in the first movement played by the basses against the high winds and strings at one point, and he also alludes to the first movement of the Dvořák “New World” Symphony without quoting it exactly. In the second-movement “Allegro scherzando,” Maliszewski again plays with rhythm, bouncing between a straight four, 6/8 time, and an irregular meter somewhere in between, at one point even overlaying one meter on top of another! He also has some fun with the rhythm in the last movement, which at times seems to run backwards.

Following the last symphony are three late orchestral pieces dating from 1928-30. All of them have fairly high levels of creativity, showing that even as he approached age 60 Maliszewski still had the spirit and imagination of a younger man. The problem was, of course, that by the 1920s strictly tonal, Romantic music like this was considered to be yesterday’s news; most of the younger musicians were into Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Bartók, Antheil, Milhaud, Honegger, Schulhoff, and others of that time. Thus it was probably good for him that Maliszewski now built his career in his native Poland, where he co-founded the Frydryk Chopin Institute and later headed the Department of Science and the Arts, where his retro-styled music still found a receptive audience. (One will note that, even at that time, the Polish government was mucking things up, as they are today, by combining Church and State: the Department of Science and Arts grew out of a nefarious organization called the Polish Ministry for Religious Denominations and Public Enlightenment. Poland just has a really hard time keeping Roman Catholicism out of their government functions.)

The Schubert tribute is particularly ingenious, opening with a paraphrase from the Eighth Symphony but eventually becoming a set of variations on the principal theme of the last movement of the Ninth Symphony—before returning again to the Eighth. By contrast, Fairy Tale (Bajka) is one of his lightest and happiest works, very close in spirit to the tone poems of Smetana and Dvořák, despite an ominous passage featuring downward portamenti on the trombones and some menacing tympani.

Interestingly, modern composer Witold Lutosławski was one of Maliszewski’s pupils, and despite their obvious differences in aesthetic views the younger composer had high words of praise for the older:

Witold Maliszewski instilled in the student a rigorous attitude towards one’s mate­rials and a sense of responsibility for every note one wrote. He was merciless in ferreting out the haphazard and illogical. […] Faithful to his aesthetic as an artist and to his ethical values as a man, he could serve as a role model for generations of young artists at the threshold of their careers.

Of course, some or even much of the excitement in these performances may be due to the wonderful conducting of Przemysław Neumann, a name completely unknown to me. He certainly gets the Jósef Elsner Opole Philharmonic to play with energy and passion, which clearly helps in our appreciation of the music. Even so, my verdict is that Witold Maliszewski is a very unjustly forgotten composer. Of all the works on this set, only the Second Symphony is rather conventional; otherwise, his musical imagination was extremely fertile and bore some surprising fruit. Highly recommended!

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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