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Feliks NOWOWIEJSKI (1877-1946) Quo Vadis Op 30 (1907/1909) [95:50]
Aleksandra Kurzak (soprano- Ligia); Artur Rucinski (baritone – The Apostle Peter); Rafal Siwek (bass- Leader of the Praetorians); Sebastian Szumski (baritone- The Cantor)
Arkadiusz Bialic (organ)
Gorecki Chamber Choir
Wlodzimierz Siedlik (choir preparation)
The Symphony Orchestra of the Feliks Nowowiejski Warmia and Mazury Philharmonic in Olsztyn/ Piotr Sulkowski
rec. Feliks Nowowiejski Warmia and Mazury Philharmonic Concert Hall, Olsztyn, Poland; August and November 2016 DDD
Sung in German DUX 1327/8 [64:45 + 31:05]
By the end of the first decade of the 20th century, Feliks Nowowiejski was regarded by his compatriots as the most important living Polish composer, and the piece that seemingly made his name was this choral epic, first performed in this definitive version in 1909. The booklet accompanying this sumptuous issue tells us that despite the prohibitive scale of the forces required, Quo Vadis had been performed over 200 times worldwide by 1939, and its German text, itself adapted from the famous novel by Nowowiejski’s compatriot Henryk Sienkiewicz (which also spawned the eponymous 1951 Hollywood blockbuster and one of Miklos Rozsa’s most renowned scores) ,was apparently translated into nine different languages.
The Rozsa reference is perhaps apt. The music of Quo Vadis is unquestionably cinematic, despite prefiguring the emergence of that art-form. Nowowiejski was a student of Max Bruch, and given that he was born in the province of Warmia (at the time part of Prussia) it is perhaps unsurprising that on the whole his music should reflect more of a Germanic temperament than contemporaries such as Karlowicz (whose music is perhaps of a more Slavic countenance) and certainly more so than Szymanowski.
The booklet suggests that the music of Quo Vadis reflects influences as varied as Meyerbeer, Bach, Liszt, Mahler, Wagner and even Reger - towards the end of the final scene there is an extended and beautifully wrought double fugue, (indeed Nowowiejski would go on to write extensively for organ – his complete symphonies and concerti for solo organ have been recorded on MD&G), but the figure conjured most in my mind by this music is Korngold- nor am I simply alluding to its filmic qualities. A few listens to Quo Vadis has amply demonstrated to my ears at least is that all the influences cited have been thoroughly assimilated and ultimately Nowowiejski is his own man. Consequently I feel this work is well worth getting to know.
The five ‘tableaux’ can, I suggest, be best appreciated as three distinct ‘panels’, each of roughly 30 minutes duration. The first of these panels, comprising ‘The Fires of Rome’ and ‘The Roman Forum’ are punctuated by militaristic brass fanfares and chordal sequences, bombastic marches and at times declamatory choral work. This music largely reflects the persecution of the Christians by the Roman hordes under Nero’s thumb – there is a warped ‘wrongness’ to it all which becomes clearer (‘righter!’) with each hearing. The ripe tones of bass Rafal Siwek (as the leader of the Praetorian guard) perfectly match the weight of the hectoring chorus. It is clear by this point that the recording is extremely natural and vivid, the choir (The Gorecki Chamber Choir) have been superbly drilled, and the less-than-renowned orchestra absolutely play their hearts out for the composer who provides their name. To be honest these opening movements irritated me a little at first hearing – I perceived them as a bit too ‘obvious’ – but familiarity with the whole work greatly clarifies them. I found them much more meaningful (and exciting) second time around.
The central panel (tableau 3) ‘In The Catacombs’ features gentler, clearly more humane music, reflecting as it does the trials facing the Christians. It centres on a dialogue whereby Ligia, tenderly sung by soprano Aleksandra Kurzak, persuades the Apostle Peter (another technically secure and dramatically convincing soloist - baritone Artur Rucinski) to flee Rome to avoid his inevitable demise. This music glows and soars alternately – I found it surprisingly effective, moving and oddly alluring.
The third ‘panel’ begins with tableau 4 ‘On the Appian Way’,which describes Peter’s encounter with Christ as he leaves Rome - the actual ‘Quo Vadis?’ question providing the pivot of the entire work - at this point the F minor darkness transcends into a luminous and redemptive E major. The following ‘Ruins of the Colisseum’ acts as more of a final prayer and thanksgiving (for organ, chorus and orchestra) than as a specific part of the narrative. It features the aforementioned eight-part double fugue with its fastidious counterpoint. There is some really compelling material in this beautifully wrought concluding section.
Dux’s presentation is certainly luxurious but perhaps lacking a little in functionality. A glossy booklet featuring an abundance of pictures of the performers is provided- but I do wish a libretto and translation had been included – after all there is not a huge amount of text. This is perhaps my only minor quibble. (I was in fact able to find a reduced score and translation online).
I have absolutely fallen in love with Nowowiejski’s Quo Vadis, but feel that its secrets emerge only after a few listens. I do hope other listeners feel the same. Indeed, I notice that another recording of the same work is imminent – with forces from Poznan – on CPO. It will have to be exceptional to surpass this thrilling performance and recording. The huge forces involved here are clearly passionately committed to this work, and are incisively marshalled throughout by the conductor Piotr Sulkowski. Richard Hanlon