I must confess that Romuald Twardowski is a name
that is new to me. Despite having a quite a number of Acte Préalable
CDs, this Polish composer does not yet seem to have made it
into Gramophone Magazine. Twardowski studied in Vilnius in the
1950s and 1960s then continued his training in Paris with Nadia
Boulanger. Since that time he has been firmly based in Poland.
Though a Roman Catholic, he has written many works for the Russian
His Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom came
about because of the composer’s friendship with Mykola Hobdych,
the musical director of the Ukrainian group Chamber Choir Kyiv
(Kiev Chamber Choir). The work was commissioned in 2005 and
received its first complete performance in 2008 in Kiev. Fragments
of the work had been premiered the previous year.
A composer’s freedom is relatively limited when
it comes to settings of the Russian Orthodox Liturgy. Other
composers such as Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff have managed
to put their personal stamp on settings of the Liturgy. Another
problem is what the composer describes as the ‘mosaic like form
of the liturgy’. It consists of 19 movements. Twardowski solves
this by treating groups of movements as fragments of a larger
form so that he feels the work breaks down into three larger-scale
meta-movements comprising movements 1 to 6, 7 to 11 and 12 to
19. I must confess to being unclear as to how this would affect
the work if it was used in liturgical performances. However,
what we are considering here is simply a concert event. The
work seems to have been conceived of as a concert work so we
must treat it as such.
Twardowski’s approach to the work is essentially
Romantic and conservative; his is not a dramatically modern
setting. Instead he has brought a melodic felicity and a freshness
of harmony to the traditional aural world of the liturgy. Twardowski's
Liturgy sounds like Russian Orthodox music and at first
it is difficult to detect the composer’s personality. Gradually
you notice small gestures and harmonic shifts which are indicative
of a 20th century slant.
Twardowski does not take the route of someone
like Alfred Schnittke. Schnittke in his Choral Concerto uses
traditional Orthodox psalm melodies but gives them a very 20th
century treatment, sometimes taking the music, singers and listeners
to extremes. Twardowski eschews extremes and creates his own
path within a more traditional context.
Twardowski has given us a work which has a very
genuine spiritual feel. This is important is settings of this
type of Liturgy. Not only must the composer respect the needs
of tradition but he must create a feeling of religious devotion
even in a concert context. This happens admirably here. Just
listening to this CD transports you to the dark environment
of an Russian Orthodox church.
Twardowski is ably supported by Hobdych and his
choir who sing the music to the manner born. If Twardowski’s
style stretches them at times, then they don’t show it. More
importantly, they sound as if they have been singing the music
for ever. The performance comes over with a directness and naturalness
which is entirely admirable. The general choral sound is remarkably
western in timbre, without too much of that extreme vibrato
which afflicts Slavic choirs. The choir does however differs
from many western choirs in that it has some wonderfully rich
dark bass voices, which the composer uses to great effect.
The CD includes the composer’s note on the work
along with information on the performers. There is no libretto,
so if you want to know what the singers are singing about you
will have to do some research.
If you are interested in contemporary music you
might find this disc a little retro. If you are flexible in
your tastes then please do try this disc. A contemporary Roman
Catholic Polish composer’s take on a Russian Orthodox Liturgy
sung by a chamber choir based in the Ukraine might not seem
like an ideal combination. But trust me: it is. If you enjoy
choral music then buy this disc.