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  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    


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Wojciech KILAR (b.1932)
Koscielec (1976) [15.51]
Piano Concerto (1997) [25.35]
Bogurodzica (1975) [10.38]
Exodus (1981) [23.55]
Waldemar Malicki (piano)
Warsaw Philharmonic National Choir of Poland/Henryk Wojnarowski
Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra/Antoni Wit
rec. live, Warsaw Philharmonic Concert Hall, 11 Oct 2002. with applause. DDD
CD ACCORD Digipack ACD 120-2 [78.16]


Kilar is one of the least forbidding faces of modern Polish music compared, for example, with Pavel Szymanski another face from the CD Accord catalogue. He has some of the gestures and armoury of the ivory tower avant-garde but his inclinations are keyed into appreciation by a discriminating wider audience. Melody plays a crucial part in his music and it rises from dissonance to sing free in many of his scores. Make no mistake though; he is not a Malcolm Arnold in his writing nor a late late-romantic like George Lloyd.

Over the years, from the late forties to the mid-seventies, his populist tendencies gave him exposure in Poland and the Soviet bloc but denied him worldwide acceptance. Compare his fate with that of his countrymen Penderecki and Lutosławski. It is only from the late seventies that a trickle of recordings has reached the wider body of music-lovers. I recall a Jerusalem LP of his Krzesany making some international headway but little else.

Koscielec has many memorable incidents. The passion of the massed strings at 5.32, the screaming and steaming trumpet at 10.40 meet the grandeur of big string theme with all the dignity of a hymnal. This is just a step distant from the epic paeans of Roy Harris at one axis and Panufnik at the other. The steady ascent at 12.02 onwards recalls the thunderously long-breathed Howard Hanson Sixth Symphony. I have mentioned several names but you can also relate his incident-rich, sombre and strange approach to Messiaen (e.g. the bird whirring and whirling at 13.20), to Valentin Silvestrov and Avet Terteryan. This is music pregnant with tension and threatening magic.

The Piano Concerto opens with a slow and very quiet iterative six-note piano cell-pulse over long-held notes from the violins. This is blessedly simple stuff gripping the listener's attention and likely to be very acceptable for those who do not have an aversion to the slow evolutionary gait of minimalism. Its effect is like watching flowers bloom in slow motion. Be warned … or encouraged … there is less incident in this concerto than in Koscielec. This might serve aptly as a Polish companion to Nyman's Piano Concerto. The first movement rises to a tense eminence associated with the iterative pulse then relaxes at 6.20 and continues its whispering repeated peal of piano notes. The violins are tense in their vulnerable transition between silence and sound and can again be likened to the healing spirit to be found in Panufnik - e.g. in his own piano concerto (also on Accord played by Ewa Poblocka) and Sinfonia Elegiaca. The second movement has the same quiet spirituality but here it is more closely related to Slavonic chant rising at the close to a tautly assertive pulsing figure for strings and piano mezzo forte. This pitches without pause into the finale which sees the first surging tumultuous pacing. Fast and repetitive, almost jazzy, the piano races along with hammering repetitions and gruff rhythmic, insistent work from brass and strings. There are echoes here of the vertiginous Bartók and Stravinsky though the 'coating' and manner is sweeter.

Bogurodzica (the ancient hymn of Polish chivalry) is the first of two works that deploy orchestra with choir. It starts with a rising and intimidating wave of side-drum 'shots'. This same wave winds the work down into a niente at the close. The choral writing seethes with dissonance seemingly influenced by the Polish school of the 1960s. As in parts of Koscielec and the Piano Concerto there are also moments of unruffled quasi-mystic calm (7.55).

Kilar's Exodus has a bifurcated root: on the one hand Ravel's Bolero and on the other the Israelites' hymn of thanks at having crossed the Red Sea. As the candid notes point out, the Kilar theme is shorter than the Bolero cell. The harp 'ticks' repeatedly, satisfied and stilling while the clarinet sings a short swaying figure that sounds Middle-Eastern. Like Bolero the interest (or aggravation) lies in the ringing of orchestral colour changes. As with the first two movements of the Piano Concerto this work speaks peace unto nations. The pulse quickens and develops a more triumphant accent (12.51) and an impetuous vitality. This coasts restfully down to where the string sonorities dominate (something like RVW's Concerto Grosso) before returning to the barbaric triumphs we associate with Rozsa's Biblical epics and Hans Zimmer's Gladiator music for imperial Rome. Three minutes short of the end the choir repetitively rap out their 'warning' and recede into a minatory whisper-patter (20.54) reminiscent of Orff in Carmina Burana. This then rises to jubilant singing in which the strings sing the swaying theme and the brass and percussion blast out the ostinato. The choir's voices ring with invocational praise and a final cloud of aleatoric chatter flickers over a thudding ostinato.

Was it all of thirty years ago that sitting in a basement flat in Paignton I was introduced to Kilar's gorgeous Krzesany? Now not only do we have the superb Naxos collection of Kilar (warmly welcomed elsewhere on this site) but also this live concert in which a far from feeble Kilar celebrates his seventieth birthday.

Rob Barnett

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