Bugurodzica – Grey Mist –
Koscielec Waldemar Malicki, Piano – Wieslaw Ochman, Baritone Warsaw National Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra
Antoni Wit, conductor
NaxosSometimes being blissfully ignorant is actually a good thing, as I found out upon receiving this CD to review. Not knowing Kilar at all before listening to this collection of pieces, I didn’t bring any preconceptions to it, which was refreshing from both a reviewing and enjoyment standpoint. Of course, later when I found out that Kilar also composed the excellent score to a rather mediocre film, namely Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula, (1992)
I realized I did indeed “know” his work, in a sense. I recall being underwhelmed by the film but struck by the dynamic, intense, and distinctly, frostily eastern European nature of much of the score. Hearing the centerpiece (and most recent) Piano Concerto (1997), and such pieces as Koscielec 1909 , it makes perfect sense now that Coppola would hire Kilar to score Dracula, and after hearing the whole thing, I felt that I had “discovered” someone important and unique, in much the same way I felt when I first heard the music of Morton Feldman, Iannis Xenakis, Brian Eno, or even Bob Dylan or David Bowie for that matter.
In the liner notes Richard Whitehouse mentions that Kilar’s influences for the Piano Concerto include “the Catholic liturgy” and “the piano concertos of Beethoven,” and I hadn’t even read this yet when I realized that somewhere during the middle of the piece, Kilar sneaks in a distinct quote from Beethoven’s 5th, or it’s at least reminiscent of the famous opening staccato string stanza of that work, but Kilar accomplishes this in such a subtle, brief manner it’s almost subliminal; however, it’s easy to see the influence by the end of the piece.
The opening piece, Bogurodzica (Mother of God), which dates from 1979, gives a good introduction of what’s to come, being a loud (in the best possible sense), dynamic, striking piece with various mini-crescendos occurring amidst a “holy terror” type chorus, the piece evokes divinity, battle, and love of country in equal turns. This CD was also my introduction to the venerable Warsaw Philharmonic, which is absolutely in top form here, and plays these pieces flawlessly and with great passion, percussion, and precision. Sometimes I find extremely loud classical music taxing, irritating, or fatiguing, but although Kilar’s work here is hardly ever really “quiet,” excepting perhaps the opening of the haunting Koscielec and Grey Mist, it demands the listener’s participation and rapt attention, and the crescendos are always for a good reason, never “bludgeoning.”
The manner in which Koscielec starts off so quietly, if ominously, and then slowly builds, reminds me of Xenakis’ classic electro-acoustic La Légende d’Eer (1977), a work written in a totally different medium but sharing similar traits, including that both pieces were inspired by myth, legend, or storyline of a monumental figure’s descent, in Xenakis’ case the Greek myths, in Kilar’s the story of the tragic death of key Polish composer Mieczyslaw Karlowicz, who perished in a skiing accident in the Tatra mountains of southern Poland; in either case, both composers clearly had Greek tragedy in mind. I also enjoyed the piece Siwa Mgla (Grey Mist), (1979) which combines a baritone vocal performed by Wieslaw Ochman, and orchestra, and which is described as one of Kilar’s tone-poems. Sometimes I feel that vocals combined with orchestral pieces are better left to the opera, but when this combination of elements is done well, as it is here, the vocals become of a piece with, and integral to, the work, and Ochman’s baritone here works to haunting effect combined with the orchestral performance.
As always, Naxos delivers a stupendous release with almost 70 minutes of music, with informative liner notes and libretti one can access on their web site, thus keeping the CD to a budget price but still not skimping on packaging and informative texts on the composers and performers. I found out quite a lot about Kilar from the included booklet, and that’s no small feat for a budget-priced label; Whitehouse’s liner notes and biographies inform and entertain, while describing the pieces included here so that even the neophyte listener will come away from this CD with a real appreciation and knowledge of Kilar and the musicians involved. This CD should be required listening to any composer or classical aficionado who wants to hear a demonstration of how libretto, vocals, and instrumental music can be combined to devastating effect and NOT be grating, dull or irritating, but rather sublime, exciting and haunting.