The Polish composer Wojciech Kilar is perhaps best known as a film composer (BRAM STOKER'S DRACULA, THE PIANIST) but his concert pieces are finally gaining wider recognition. On this recording, Naxos offers a great sampling of Kilar's modern-sounding but accessible concert works with spectacular sound and performances.
The first piece on this disc has the title BOGURODZICA (Mother of God) and is scored for orchestra and mixed chorus. According to the album's liners notes, this work's sung text comes from an old Polish hymn. BOGURODZICA opens ominously with pounding drums which gives way to the entrance of the chorus with a hair-raising, dissonant shriek. The rest of the work alternates between loud and unnerving sections (featuring shocking brass and percussion outbursts) and passages of soothing strings backed by the choir. The whole thing comes to a close with an irresistible orchestral swell and the return of those pounding drums from the opening.
Kilar's minimalist PIANO CONCERTO from 1997 is the featured work on this disc, and it is an attractive one. The first movement opens with a very persistent ostinato from the piano and strings. The effect of this is almost hypnotic until slight variations appear towards the end of the movement when a modest intensity builds just before the music gently fades away. The second movement starts with a simple but pleasing string theme which then gets picked up and repeated by the piano. Toward the end, the strings begin to swell and the rhythm becomes markedly more intense. Then, the second movement immediately segues into its third, directly and without pause. For the first time in this piece, we encounter percussion and brass, both pulsating and aggressive. This is a wonderful movement, evocative of a hell-bound train heading toward certain disaster; the fiery piano playing the bracing rhythms from the orchestra truly give a feeling of urgent and inescapable forward motion. The third movement ends somewhat abruptly, though effectively, with a dissonant roar from the brass.
SIWA MGLA (Grey Mist) is a tone poem for baritone and orchestra. The sung text is derived from folk sources, according the liner notes. This work opens with a wonderfully mysterious, slightly dissonant tremolo from the strings, aptly conjuring images of a very thick fog with hidden, latent horrors underneath. The soloist then appears, balefully singing in Polish. (By the way, he baritone, Wieslaw Ochman, performs convincingly on this recording, and his bitter-sweet tone filled me with feelings of doom and gloom, even though I had no idea what he was singing.) Again, there are startling surprises from the percussion and brass sections throughout until the compositions comes to a gentle, but optimistic close.
For me, the most interesting piece on this recording is the final one, Kilar's famous tone poem, KOSCIELEC 1909. The title refers to a peak in the Tatra mountains and was written to commemorate the untimely demise of Polish composer Mieczyslaw Karlowicz. Karlowicz, the leading Polish composer of his day, died in an avalanche on Koscielec. This composition, according to Kilar, is not program music in the sense that it tells the story of Karlowicz's death, but it is more intent on creating a mood based on the event.
KOSCIELEC 1909 opens darkly and deliberately with low strings and bassoons. As the work progresses, more violence emerges from the percussion and brass sections, an obvious Kilar specialty. The piece ends with the strings softly fading into the distance only to be interrupted by a strangely triumphant brass crescendo. What is so interesting about this piece is that it constantly seems to be at odds with itself; at one moment, it is an obvious elegy mourning the loss of the composer Karlowicz, but at other times, the music almost seems to be a praise to the beauty and majesty of the Tatra mountains.
This ironic duality seems to be a reoccurring feature of Kilar's oeuvre. While he often writes music based on religious themes (as he does in BORURODZICA), his music is often quite unsettling, almost demonic in texture. (This is, no doubt, why he was asked to score a film like Francis Ford Coppola's BRAM STOKER'S DRACULA.)
In general, the music on the recording can be quite stark and jolting, but it is accessible and has a much appreciated directness about it; thus, I would guess that many who avoid modernist music at all costs would probably enjoy this album. At least, they should give it a try.
Conductor Antoni Wit and the Warsaw National Philharmonic are in top form here. Their performances are well polished, but can appropriately spoon out the over-the-top assertiveness of Kilar's idiom when needed. Also, the sound of this recording is nothing short of spectacular. Highly recommended.