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Wojciech KILAR (b. 1932)
Bogurodzica (Mother of God) for mixed chorus and orchestra (1975) [10:47]
Piano Concerto (1997) [25:48]
Siwa Mgla (Grey Mist) for baritone and orchestra (1979) [16:06]
Kościelec 1909 (symphonic poem) (1976) [16:05]
Waldemar Malicki (piano)
Wieslaw Ochman (baritone)
Warsaw National Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra/Antoni Wit
rec. Warsaw Philharmonic Hall, 8-12 October, 29 November 2002. DDD
NAXOS 8.557813 [68:46]

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This is the second disc that Naxos have released dedicated to the concert music of Wojciech Kilar. The first was released four years ago. Once again it is Kilar’s Polish compatriot Antoni Wit that presides over matters, this time with the Warsaw Philharmonic rather than the Polish National Radio Symphony whose strongly characterful performances were such a feature of the first disc.

Outside his native Poland Kilar’s music is still little known in comparison to that of his near contemporaries Gorecki and Penderecki, although his work in the field of cinema and in particular his music for Francis Ford Coppola’s movie, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, has introduced his work to an audience outside the confines of the strictly classical world. Indeed a quick glance through the Marco Polo catalogue, these days a Naxos sister company, will reveal that Kilar’s complete score from Dracula is available for those who may want to explore the film element of his output. 

Kilar studied at Darmstadt in 1957 and presented his early avant-garde works at the first Warsaw Autumn Festival. They were a far cry from the subsequent transition that his music was to go through in the early 1970s when he abandoned atonality in favour of a folk-influenced simplicity that has been the backbone of his music ever since. The previous Naxos release focused principally on the 1980s, whereas this new release takes us back to the 1970s for three works before bringing us relatively up to date with the 1997 Piano Concerto.

Bogurodzica takes as its basis an ancient Polish hymn, the same hymn that Andrzej Panufnik had utilised some twelve years earlier in his Sinfonia Sacra. Kilar creates a “fantasy” around the hymn in which the music emerges from the distance by way of a tapping drum and timpani roll before the chorus intone the first lines. The hymn is subsequently subjected to strident outbursts of dissonance - harking back to Kilar’s avant-garde roots - and a staccato separation of the words that seems to cross Orff’s Carmina Burana with Jerry Goldsmith’s score for The Omen. A mood of peaceful calm is then introduced leading to apparent resolution. This is broken by the ominous return of the martial drum from the opening as the music recedes into silence. It’s a striking piece and one that seems to unite the extremes of the transformation through which Kilar’s musical language had recently passed. This work is quoted on the rear of the CD cover as dating from 1979 but is shown as 1975 in the inner notes and confirmed as the latter in the Polish Music Centre’s web page on Kilar.

Dating from the following year, the symphonic poem Kościelec 1909 is a homage to the life of the Polish composer Mieczyslaw Karlowicz. Kościelec is the name of the peak in the Tatra Mountains where Karlowicz met his premature death at the age of thirty-two in an avalanche whilst skiing. Whilst, as Richard Whitehouse points out in his sleeve-notes, Kilar portrays no narrative element in his music, the mood is predominantly one of tragedy. The music slowly emerges with great effort it seems from the gloom painted by the lower strings through the long opening section. As is often the case with Kilar the music progresses through a series of distinct blocks of material including a resonant string chorale that calls to mind Gorecki’s Third Symphony.  This is before the eventual tread of a powerful climax to the close: grim affirmation of the loss that Karlowicz was to the musical life of Poland.

The clinging “grey mist” that is Siwa Mgla envelops the listener for an apparent eternity before the solo baritone enters with what Richard Whitehouse describes as “texts derived from folk sources”; the only clue we are given as to the origin of the words. Eventually the mists are dispelled and a sense of new found peace prevails, only to be shattered in now familiar Kilar fashion by violent outbursts from the brass and percussion. The calm eventually returns, although not before I found myself questioning how many more works Kilar has produced along similar formulaic lines.

The period of around twenty years that separates the three 1970s works from the 1997 Piano Concerto seems to have softened and simplified Kilar’s language still further. We no longer have the violent interjections that hark back to his music of an earlier age. Instead, repetition plays a greater part. The gently oscillating rhythmic figuration of the piano part continues pretty much uninterrupted for the entire nine minutes of the opening movement. The composer relies on brief passages of modulation and tonal colouring for contrast. The sustained central movement is based around a solemn chorale introduced by the soloist at the opening of the movement. Beethoven is clearly in the background here. The vigorous final Toccata introduces the first fast music of the entire work, the piano’s insistent rhythmic patterns ultimately propelling the music to a dynamic conclusion.

The fact that this latest Kilar disc has failed to engage me in the way that the first Naxos release did is possibly a matter of familiarity more than anything else. On first acquaintance there is certainly an engaging quality about Kilar’s music yet repeated exposure to it, in particular his music of the 1970s and 1980s, underlines a somewhat predictable approach to structure and form. To be fair the Piano Concerto has moved away from this, albeit to an even greater simplicity of expression, yet although the surface of the music is undeniably attractive, it lacks the emotional depth and penetration of either Gorecki or Penderecki, to mention Kilar’s closest compatriots once again.

Enthusiasts of Kilar’s music and film scores can rest assured that at Naxos prices, this is a safe purchase with Antoni Wit and his Polish forces giving committed readings. Anyone wishing to explore the composer for the first time however would be advised to make a start with the earlier Naxos disc and in particular the two substantial works from the 1980s that form the centre-piece of that particular recording, Angelus and Exodus.

Christopher Thomas


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