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Krzysztof MEYER (b. 1943)
Chansons d’un RÍveur Solitaire, Op 116 (2011-2012) [25:47]
Symphony No. 8 'Sinfonia da Requiem', Op 111 (2009-2013) [40:09]
Claudia Barainsky (soprano)
Mixed Choir of the Karol Szymanowski Philharmonic (Krakow)/Teresa Majka-Pacanek
Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra (Katowice)/ Łukasz Borowicz
rec. 2015/18, Concert Hall of the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra, Katowice, Poland
Texts in French and Polish included without translations
DUX 1569 [66:08]

If there is a hierarchy of fame for Polish composers born in the first half of the twentieth century, Kryzsztof Meyer is arguably next in line after Lutosławski, Penderecki, Gorecki and Panufnik, especially if one bases the judgement upon the number of commercially available recordings. Naxos have issued half a dozen discs of his chamber music including the first thirteen of his fifteen quartets, while Dux are in the middle of what appears to be a Meyer series, of which this fine new release appears to be the eleventh. Those prepared to look further afield will also find discs on Challenge Classics, Koch Schwann, Toccata Classics and assorted Polish labels. A search on the MWI site will yield reviews of a good number of these releases, most of which are overwhelmingly positive. Given Meyer’s exposure on disc then, it’s perhaps a surprise that he has thus far achieved less prominence in Britain or the USA than those older compatriots mentioned earlier. He studied with both Lutosławski and Penderecki either side of a spell with Nadia Boulanger in the mid-1960s; his earlier work gives off the particular flavours common to much of the new music written in Poland at the time. He spent most of the two decades surrounding the turn of the millennium as Professor of Composition at the influential Hochschule fŁr Musik in Cologne. It is fair to say his style has mellowed substantially over the last thirty years, in keeping with his Polish teachers’ later work. The shadows of both hover over each of these big pieces.

And there are other influences too. There is an appropriately Gallic transparency in his approach to the orchestral song form on the evidence of his agreeably atmospheric Verlaine cycle Chansons d’un RÍveur Solitaire (Songs of a Lonely Dreamer), expressively sung here by contemporary specialist Claudia Barainsky. If Meyer’s word setting occasionally borders on the literal, his colour choices are consistently delicate, subtle and tasteful. In this way Chanson d’Automne’s gentle string lines incorporate shafts of light from the flute in a restrained introduction which immediately suggests late-period Lutosławski. When Barainsky eventually enters the fray, her mildly smoky voice neatly conveys Verlaine’s melancholy and a repressed intensity which punctures the overriding sense of resignation intermittently. Restless, agitated winds and harp dominate the textures of the enigmatic Les Coquillages (Shells), sounds whose dryness evoke the shells themselves and contrast with the inferred eroticism Barainsky playfully conjures from Verlaine’s words. Les soleils couchants (Setting Suns) is languid and spare, the shading enhanced by glistening metallic percussion over pastel strings and by a shimmering vocal line which Barainky delivers serenely. The brief Marine is biting and brittle, all chattering woodwinds and tolling brass, it contrasts markedly with Serenade, the final number, whose sustained lyricism mirrors that of the opening song. In this piece little woodwind figures overlap with muted brass, the orchestration is thicker set and gaunt, the vocal line is more elusive. Eros and Thanatos joust with each other in an extended chanson whose harmonies and colours sometimes suggest the painterly ear of Meyer’s slightly younger French contemporary Philippe Hersant. The five songs sit well together as a cycle (in broad terms it embodies a symmetrical ‘arch’ structure) – ultimately listeners in tune with Lutosławski’s masterly 1991 cycle Chantefleurs et Chantefables will find Meyer’s language conducive and agreeable, his orchestration varied and imaginative and Claudia Barainsky’s advocacy heartfelt and compelling.

Meyer’s choral Symphony No 8 (Sinfonia da Requiem) was completed a year later than the song cycle and while its musical syntax holds few terrors, in conceptual terms I found it a tougher nut to crack. Essentially it constitutes a Requiem dedicated to the Holocaust, but one that is timely, given that it’s inspired by the rapidly concluding demise of the generation that survived it, and by the indifference to it which seems to be increasingly pervasive in these ever more challenging times. In four of its five movements Meyer has provided choral and orchestral settings of the anti-anti-Semitic Polish writer Adam Zagajewski. These texts act as commentaries (as in a Greek choros) rather than conveying individual personal experience. In the tragic opening movement (a setting of Zagajewski’s unsettling poem Jedwabne) oscillating winds and gently rising figures in brass and percussion act as a counterpoint to the static unison of the voices which generate a kind of controlled, resigned ‘wailing’. Muted brass chords provide sonic milestones; ominous rolls on the timpani create the illusion of distance. Meyer’s music is the opposite of histrionic – it’s controlled and low-key. The purely orchestral scherzo which follows is marked con ira; it’s a propulsive panel which projects by turn baying anger, mordant humour and unmanageable tragedy and seems in part at least to provide a purely instrumental commentary on the previous movement.

In the central section (at eleven minutes the longest) Meyer sets a poem which translates as ‘An Unwritten Elegy for Krakow’s Jews’. Grim, frozen string textures provide a backcloth for deep male unison voices (choral writing which is not unlike Shostakovich’s masterly settings of Yevgeny Yevtushenko in his all-too-infrequently performed Symphony No 13 Babi Yar) and glissandi for the females which suggest mourning; the cold, bare harmonies that emerge offer scant consolation; rather they provide a gentle nudge to the conscience. The pulse and emotional temperature of Meyer’s music remains cool and static, although telling percussion interjections provide variations in colour and add intermittent tension. The fourth movement (the title of the poem translates as ‘Life Sentence’) begins as if it’s another Scherzo, one which certainly equals the second in ironic feeling and again seems to display some kinship with Shostakovich, but the mordant impression doesn’t linger and a spare intensity prevails. However Meyer’s own voice is never far away – here it emerges in some weird, disconcerting writing for solo trumpet, and in the strange textures produced by the lower strings. The disembodied trumpet fanfares and the bells and gongs at the movement’s end fuse directly with the overwhelmingly funereal finale Persephone, and the aloof, helpless utterances of the male voices. This is music of frozen grief. The choral writing is most accomplished, and the Krakow choir convey the sense of paralysis and futility at its core superbly. The solemn diminuendo in the Symphony’s closing bars gives way to a rapid Lutosławskian peroration and leaves an isolated sustained note which is extinguished by a final, disinterested orchestral shrug. Meyer’s Symphony No 8 is certainly not an easy listen, but one becomes increasingly aware of its message and the composer’s tact and skill in its transmission. Despite the influences I have suggested, it is neither hackneyed nor derivative.

Łukasz Borowicz has built a deserved reputation as an energetic champion of the contemporary music of his homeland, and here he leads the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra in ably prepared accounts of two of Kryzsztof Meyer’s most ambitious recent scores. Their commitment to this music is evident from first note to the last. Dux have provided a spacious, atmospheric sound image which yields every detail most faithfully. Dux’s notes are clear and helpful; less so the lack of English translations of either text. There are various versions of the Verlaine poems available online; the same cannot be said for Adam Zagajewski’s more recent writing, alas.

Richard Hanlon

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