I think it must have been in the early 1970's that I attended a concert by the Warsaw Philharmonic at Chicago's Orchestra Hall. Chicago, as you probably already know, has a larger Polish population than Warsaw, and it seemed to me that the community had turned out in force and all their finery to welcome their countrymen. There was certainly a festive air in the hall that night, a palpable sense of occasion. I was happy to be caught up in the excitement, but I was there for a different reason. The conductor that night was going to be Witold Rowicki, a name I only knew from records. Rowicki, who rarely ventured outside of Poland, had devoted most of his career to rebuilding the Warsaw Philharmonic after the devastation of the Second World War (in which half of its musicians had perished). He also sponsored and regularly performed the music of native composers, Karlowicz and Lutoslawski among them. Lutoslawski dedicated his Third Symphony to Rowicki, who then gave the work its premiere. Rowicki hadn't made many recordings, but among them were several of my favorite performances: an all-Polish Rachmaninoff Concerto No. 3 with Malcuzynski and the Warsaw Philharmonic, Prokofiev concertos with Sviatoslov Richter, and (best of all) a thrilling set of the Dvorak Symphonies with the London Symphony Orchestra.
The closing work on the program was the Tchaikovsky Fourth Symphony, and I don't think anyone, me least of all, could have anticipated the sheer visceral excitement of the performance we heard that night. I remember the couple in front of me rocking back and forth as if buffeted by storm winds. The last movement began with a thunderclap that made us all jump in our seats, and then maintained a breathless momentum throughout. At the end, we all leapt to our feet shouting at the top of our lungs. That kind of playing deserved no less. At the time, it was the greatest performance of the symphony I'd ever heard.
For years afterward, I searched though obscure catalogues, hoping that some recording by Rowicki and the Warsaw of the Tchaikovsky Fourth would turn up as a bootleg or an Import, but no such luck. And later still, I began to distrust my memories of the performance: could it really have been that good? Well, here it is. Recorded live in London's Royal Festival Hall on April 7th, 1967, it is in every way the same kind of performance I was to hear in Chicago a few years later, and it is every bit as good as I remembered it.
Rowicki's Tchaikovsky Fourth is decidedly non-Romantic: he scrupulously avoids the mood swings and bipolar shifts in tempo that characterize performances by conductors like Bernstein and Mengelberg (and countless others too). This is a classical vision of the music with lean sonorities and no-nonsense tempos. To my knowledge Toscanini never performed Tchaikovsky's Fourth — we at least know that he never recorded it — but if he had, this is what it would have sounded like. The first movement is fierce, defiant, and propulsive. Rowicki's exposition is so intense, I began to doubt if he could possibly sustain that kind of tension over the course of the entire movement. But he does more than just sustain it; he builds it inexorably it to a furious, heart-stopping climax. Within the conductor's tightly organized structure, there is a sense of contrast; the music breathes and sings. But the intensity and concentration never flag. Not surprisingly, the second movement is not especially slow. Rowicki takes the marking “Andantino” seriously, and the rhythms here are well sprung, the second subject more thrusting and assertive than we're used to hearing it. The scherzo that follows is urgent, restless, the perfect prelude to the explosive, whirlwind (and utterly ecstatic) finale. Given the ovation that follows the last chord, the London audience seems just as thrilled with this performance as the Chicago audience would be a few years later.
Like Rowicki, the great violinist Wanda Wilkomirska left behind far too few recordings, so this sympathetic performance of the rarely heard Britten Violin Concerto makes for a generous and welcome filler. Written in 1940, the concerto is very much a product of its historical moment. Britten, a lifelong pacifist, recoiled in horror as he witnessed the rise of European fascism and the world careening into another brutal war. The concerto is not programmatic, but its dramatic structure is clear enough: an idyllic opening movement is followed by a disruptive and menacing scherzo. The reflective cadenza leads directly to a passacaglia that ends with a dirge-like march. Long thought a failure, Britten's Violin Concerto has only recently come into its own with splendid recordings by Maxim Vengerov, Janine Jensen, and Daniel Hope. But none of them eclipses this live account. Wilkomirska and Rowicki have the full measure of this complex and tragic work, and their performance is as heart-rending and searing as the composer's own, recorded for London a few years later (with Mark Lubotsky as the violinist). The Moniuszko piece makes for a high-spirited encore.
A few words of caution. These are live performances; and though the Brits (characteristically) reserve their coughs for the pauses between movements, there are still some extraneous audience noises. The Warsaw Philharmonic is not in the same class as the top European orchestras, and the Tchaikovsky is not a note-perfect performance. There are no serious flaws here, but this doesn't have the sheen of a studio recording. What you get instead is an orchestra playing with an intensity rarely encountered in studio performances. Rowicki asks for everything they have, and that's exactly what they give him. Finally, the sound is very good for a live performance from 1967, spacious and brightly lit, but it's also more recessed. You're going to have to turn the volume up. These reservations aside, this recording is an important document of a remarkable concert. If you've been looking for a Tchaikovsky Fourth that burns at the white heat, here it is.