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CD Review

Wojciech Kilar

  • Bogurodzica
  • Piano Concerto 1
  • Siwa Mgła 2
  • Koscielec 1909
1 Waldemar Malicki, piano
2 Wiesław Ochman, baritone
Warsaw National Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra/Antoni Wit
Naxos 8.557813 DDD 68:46
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Wojciech Kilar is still a little-known figure in this country, though he gained exposure through his film scores, like Bram Stoker's Dracula. On the basis of this CD, I would say that Kilar deserves greater attention, that his voice is individual and worthy of consideration as one of the most important 20th century Polish composers. Actually, Kilar (b. 1932) is still active and must therefore be counted among the most gifted 21st century composers.

That said, the Piano Concerto, the centerpiece of this CD is, in my opinion, the most uneven work here, featuring a most problematic opening panel. The work is minimalist in approach and thus often thread-bare and repetitive. Some listeners will regard the first movement as mesmerizing and soothing, like the stuff you hear in these relaxation tapes and CDs that have ocean waves and other quiet sounds of nature mixed into the track. Against ethereal, calming strings, the pianist opens with a repeating figure played again and again, offering little variation as the movement progresses. It's as if music that should serve as accompaniment has become the main line in this slowly building, brightly-lit opening panel. The music is pleasant enough in its thin textures and sense of triumphant serenity, but lacks meat on its frail bones.

The second movement appears to be based on melodic material drawn from the Roman Catholic liturgy, almost certainly from medieval times. The notes, by Richard Whitehouse, indicate that source for the concerto in general, but identify nothing in particular for the second movement. The theme is serene and so is most of the music here until near the close, where considerable intensity is worked up. The toccata finale is driving and also quite intense. Again, strains from ecclesiastical sources can be heard as the tension builds and the music turns frenzied. This may be the best movement, though the chorale second is also quite moving in its heartrending passion. It is the first movement that poses problems, at least for me. All in all, though, this is a quite interesting work, given a fine performance by pianist Waldemar Malicki. The first two movements are not too difficult, but the finale sounds enormously challenging. Malicki, however, does not falter and deftly captures the sense of frenzy and energy permeating the music. Antoni Wit and his Warsaw players also turn in fine work.

The opening piece, Bogurodzica, may be the best composition on the disc. After a rather uninteresting introductory passage largely on snare drum, wherein a bombastic buildup of sorts leads to the chorus's entry, the music here immediately captures your attention. Based on a traditional theme, used for the Polish National Anthem and for a well known hymn to the Virgin Mary, the music, in its weirdness, ethereality and occasional hysteria, remind the listener of Prokofieff's masterly Seven, They are Seven. Kilar's work is short (about eleven minutes) but powerful and imaginative, and, though it is somewhat more peaceful and contemplative than the even shorter Prokofieff work, it seems far removed from a hymn or national anthem. The chorus and orchestra perform admirably and, once again, Wit leads the proceedings with a knowing sense.

Siwa Mgła is scored for baritone and orchestra and sung here by veteran operatic singer Wiechslaw Ochman, who started out as a tenor. The work is mostly serene in the first half and conflicted though ultimately triumphant in its final arrival at peace in the latter half. Ochman is in fine form and Wit and his players turn in splendid work, as well.

Koscielec 1909 commemorates the life of Polish composer Mieczysław Karlowicz, who died in a skiing accident on the Tatra mountains of Southern Poland in 1909. Koscielec, in the title, refers to one of the peaks of those mountains, the place of Karlowicz's early demise – he was just thirty-two. The music is atmospheric and, as you might expect, quite tragic. It begins serenely, then develops considerable tension before arriving at what must be a depiction of Karlowicz's death, in deftly imaginative and darkly colorful scoring. I should mention that the work is not supposed to be programmatic, but parts of it come across that way to me. At any rate, after the climax the mood turns ambivalent, with descending, dark strings sinking to a seeming abyss only to give way to a rising sense of defiance that closes out the piece. Again, Wit and the Warsaw Philharmonic deliver a fully convincing performance. The sound in all works is vivid and state-of-the-art. All in all, this disc can be strongly recommended.

Copyright © 2006, Robert Cummings