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RECORDING OF THE MONTH
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Felix NOWOWIEJSKI (1877-1946) Quo Vadis – Oratorio for Solo Voices, Mixed Choir, Organ and Orchestra (1907) [95:15]
Wioletta Chodowicz (soprano), Robert Gierlach (baritone), Wojtek Gierlach (bass)
Sławomir Kaminsky (organ)
Podlasi Opera and Philharmonic Choir/Violeta Bielecka
Poznań Philharmonic Orchestra/Łukasz Borowicz
rec. 2016, Concert at The Auditorium of The Adam Mickiewicz University, Poznań CPO 555 089-2 [95:15]
Dux issued a recording of this oratorio which Richard Hanlon reviewed in July 2017. He gave it a good review, saying that the work grew on him after repeated listening and that he ended up falling in love with it!
That was quite a recommendation, and so I put it on my Amazon Wish List, aware that another recording by CPO was imminent – and here it is. Richard states that it would have to be exceptional to surpass the Dux, but since I do not own the latter, I will try to give a detailed assessment of this live recording.
Unlike the DUX CD, it is sung in Polish but like its predecessor it does not contain a libretto. The original work was published in German and despite several google and bing searches I cannot locate a free download of the sung text. This is important because the synopsis in the booklet is inadequate in guiding the listener through the action. For example, Scene 1 is split into five tracks, and in the booklet track list each one is labelled (in Polish with English translation) with a short phrase sung during the track. However, the synopsis simply does not reference the tracks and so one is left struggling. Perhaps copyright issues have prevented CPO and Dux doing more in this respect, and if so, they are forgiven.
The booklet contains a synopsis (as mentioned) and a rather splendid essay by the conductor Łukasz Borowicz giving a description of what is going on in the orchestral/vocal score at various points, and which aids the listener struggling without a libretto. Another essay, by Iwona Fokt presents a short biography of the composer. The booklet is in German, English and Polish and just fits into the slim 2-CD Jewel case.
The first scene opens with immensely dramatic music – full orchestra with prominent blaring brass, underpinned by the organ. Rome is burning, and the chorus enter; the terrified citizens, singing ‘save us’. This changes to what I think is a declaration that the gods are angry with them. All the while the fanfare motifs are notable as the composer seeks to emulate or outdo Verdi at his most brazen. Things quieten somewhat as the Romans complain that they have not seen the morning sky for six days. Then new themes are introduced for a splendidly focused and recorded male voice choir who claim that they have just seen the Emperor Nero playing his lyre while the city burns. The scene ends with another choral outburst asking what has Rome done to so offend the gods. It is a choral and orchestral tour de force and prepares us for more to come.
It leads directly into the second scene which starts with the entrance of the Praetorian Guard to a March that became so famous that it was often performed separately as an orchestral piece. It opens with a slightly threatening hint to the fanfares, but soon becomes a bit too jolly. I have often thought that Respighi’s Roman Legions pack just the right amount of threat, when marching down the Appian Way – Nowowiejski misses it by more than a just a little.
A longish aria for the Praetorian Prefect follows, interspersed with choral interjections, in which he blames the Christians for starting the fire. The chorus responds “Christians to the Lions”. Most of the piece is loud, repeatedly punctuated by fanfares and percussion crashes. The bass, Wojtek Gierlach is suitably threatening in his monologue.
The almost continuous furore of the first two scenes is relieved at the opening of the third. It starts with an orchestral introduction in low strings and woodwind and then with harps, supported by high strings. At this point I become a little confused – the track listing tells me that the initial aria is for bass followed by another for baritone. If this is actually the case, I struggle to differentiate between the voices. Anyway, one of them sings a short exhortation to his followers to sing praises to the Lord. The chorus acquiesces in prayer and its singing has a modal flavour; appropriate and very effective. This is followed by a short, quiet organ solo which introduces more prayerful exchanges between St. Peter and the chorus. When they join together with organ accompaniment, the effect is really very good indeed. Then, I think that St. Peter declares defiance against the tyrant, to the initial accompaniment of the second scene March music, which doesn’t sound quite right in this context, although it does, of course, remind the listener of the persecuting authorities.
The soprano, Wioletta Chodowicz, singing the part of the young maiden Ligia then enters – she is fine, perhaps a little matronly, but has a decently controlled vibrato and later in the scene when things warm up, she is able to ride the entire orchestra and chorus. She urges Peter to flee Rome to escape the persecutions. The scene is drawn to a close in the remaining twenty minutes after her entrance by continuing exchanges between the two soloists, chorus and orchestra, proclaiming their solidarity in the face of persecution and supporting Ligia in her urging of Peter to escape. She eventually succeeds and he, with great reluctance, flees. The music is, at times, more reflective than in the earlier scenes, but rises to heights of religious fervour elsewhere, and is splendidly maintained by the composer. My attention did not lapse at all, although I wish that I could have read exactly what was being sung.
In the fourth and last scene, we hear of Peter’s flight, his self-doubts- beautifully sung by the baritone, and his vision of a glowing crown of thorns and a cross in the sky. Somehow or other he interprets this as a vision of Jesus and says “Quo Vadis, Domine?” (Where are you go going, Lord?). Jesus replies “to Rome, to be crucified again”. This is superbly presented by the bass and sung on one note, whilst Nowowiejsky has the orchestra indulging in all sorts of quiet timbral colouring to lovely effect. As might be expected, this experience has a galvanic effect on St. Peter who turns back to Rome after singing a powerful monologue. The final seventeen minute choral/orchestral section of the cantata then begins, and I have to say that it is overwhelming in its impact. In a triumphant double fugue, orchestra, organ and chorus celebrate the Apostle’s martyrdom and the founding of the Christian Church. The closing Amen, repeated again and again, raises the roof, and I emerged from it thinking “Wow!”.
I am not in the least bit surprised that its success after the first performance was phenomenal – performed over 200 times across the world. I should imagine that a Christian audience might be moved to tears, and I say that as a person who has no religious beliefs.
It fell out of performance after WW2, probably because of the cost of staging it, and certainly in the Communist East its overtly religious message would not have been a point in its favour.
It is clear from his essay that the conductor, Łukasz Borowicz has devoted himself to Quo Vadis and he deserves high praise for his efforts in staging this performance and conducting the excellent orchestra. It is also appropriate for me to bestow equal praise on everyone else concerned in this production, mentioning particularly the chorus and their director Violetta Bielecka.
I should also say that CPO’s engineers have excelled. I think that they have used fairly close miking for all the performers, because the sound stage, whilst immensely vivid, is a little lacking in depth. By doing so, they have eliminated any audience noise, which suits me fine.
I suppose that if I had to assign a style to the music, I would invoke Verdi, early Richard Strauss and Respighi - lovers of Romantic excess take note (I include myself here) – and there is no doubt that Nowowiejski is a master of the entire range of the orchestra, chorus and organ, and he was just thirty when the piece was composed.
I am so taken by this piece (despite slight reservations regarding the Praetorian March) that I have just ordered the Dux CDs to supplement it.
Interestingly, the booklet mentions that the conductor has also recorded Nowowiejsky’s 3rd symphony for orchestra, soloists and choir, but I can’t find any indication as to the whereabouts of the recording