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Peter Burwasser
Fanfare, December 2006

The music of this contemporary composer hits many of the right buttons for me. It is well crafted, it has a discernible shape, and it is expressed in a confident and original voice. Because of the sleek appeal of the music, it was not surprising to read that Wojciech Kilar is primarily known as a film composer, with over 100 scores to his credit, mostly in the Polish film industry, but also for such well-known Western movies as Francis Ford Coppola's Bram Stoker's Dracula, Roman Polanski's Death and the Maiden, and Jane Campion's Portrait of a Lady. His style in those scores, as well as the music on this CD, is essentially post-Romantic, with strong doses of minimalism and Eastern liturgical music (think Gorecki and Part).

At the heart of this program is the 1997 Piano Concerto. The work is in three movements, but it is otherwise unconventionally constructed, beginning with a dreamy Andante that is large in scope but gentle in impact. With its metrical regularity and repeated melodic patterns, this is the most overtly minimalist music on the CD. The middle movement is slower still, and shares a Brahmsian melodic quality with the juggernaut-like final movement. Malicki has a firm control over the deceptively simple sounding solo part. The opening work, Bogurodzica, is the most harmonically advanced, with dissonant outbursts of choral writing for this setting of an ancient Polish hymn. It opens and closes with the beating of drums, alluding to a martial atmosphere. The work shares the composer's predilection for extreme dynamic contrasts with the other two works on the program. and opens so quietly that you might be tempted to crank up the volume, which will put you at the risk of ear damage a few moments later.

Siwa Mgla ("Grey Mist") and Koscielec are both tone poems, and are the pieces most like "movie music" on the program. Neither work is without merit and even beauty. Siwa Mgla is most compelling when the solo baritone enters, due in no small part to the richly expressive voice of Wieslaw Ochman. In Koscielec (named for a mountain in the Tatra range of Southern Poland), however, the bombast finally overwhelms any subtlety, in a score that would probably work well for a mass-market sci-fi flick.

I have long admired the work of Antoni Wit and the Warsaw Philharmonic. This is a great Eastern European orchestra, showing off an impressive combination of virtuosity and passion. Both orchestra and conductor contribute immensely to the appeal of Kilar's music, to which they sound intensely committed.

Christopher Thomas
MusicWeb International, October 2006

This is the second disc that Naxos have released dedicated to the concert music of Wojciech Kilar. The first was released four years ago. Once again it is Kilar’s Polish compatriot Antoni Wit that presides over matters, this time with the Warsaw Philharmonic rather than the Polish National Radio Symphony whose strongly characterful performances were such a feature of the first disc.

Outside his native Poland Kilar’s music is still little known in comparison to that of his near contemporaries Gorecki and Penderecki, although his work in the field of cinema and in particular his music for Francis Ford Coppola’s movie, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, has introduced his work to an audience outside the confines of the strictly classical world. Indeed a quick glance through the Marco Polo catalogue, these days a Naxos sister company, will reveal that Kilar’s complete score from Dracula is available for those who may want to explore the film element of his output.

Kilar studied at Darmstadt in 1957 and presented his early avant-garde works at the first Warsaw Autumn Festival. They were a far cry from the subsequent transition that his music was to go through in the early 1970s when he abandoned atonality in favour of a folk-influenced simplicity that has been the backbone of his music ever since. The previous Naxos release focused principally on the 1980s, whereas this new release takes us back to the 1970s for three works before bringing us relatively up to date with the 1997 Piano Concerto.

Bogurodzica takes as its basis an ancient Polish hymn, the same hymn that Andrzej Panufnik had utilised some twelve years earlier in his Sinfonia Sacra. Kilar creates a “fantasy” around the hymn in which the music emerges from the distance by way of a tapping drum and timpani roll before the chorus intone the first lines. The hymn is subsequently subjected to strident outbursts of dissonance - harking back to Kilar’s avant-garde roots - and a staccato separation of the words that seems to cross Orff’s Carmina Burana with Jerry Goldsmith’s score for The Omen. A mood of peaceful calm is then introduced leading to apparent resolution. This is broken by the ominous return of the martial drum from the opening as the music recedes into silence. It’s a striking piece and one that seems to unite the extremes of the transformation through which Kilar’s musical language had recently passed.

Dating from the following year, the symphonic poem Koscielec 1909 is a homage to the life of the Polish composer Mieczyslaw Karlowicz. Koscielec is the name of the peak in the Tatra Mountains where Karlowicz met his premature death at the age of thirty-two in an avalanche whilst skiing. Whilst, as Richard Whitehouse points out in his sleeve-notes, Kilar portrays no narrative element in his music, the mood is predominantly one of tragedy. The music slowly emerges with great effort it seems from the gloom painted by the lower strings through the long opening section. As is often the case with Kilar the music progresses through a series of distinct blocks of material including a resonant string chorale that calls to mind Gorecki’s Third Symphony. This is before the eventual tread of a powerful climax to the close: grim affirmation of the loss that Karlowicz was to the musical life of Poland.

The clinging “grey mist” that is Siwa Mgla envelops the listener for an apparent eternity before the solo baritone enters with what Richard Whitehouse describes as “texts derived from folk sources”; the only clue we are given as to the origin of the words. Eventually the mists are dispelled and a sense of new found peace prevails, only to be shattered in now familiar Kilar fashion by violent outbursts from the brass and percussion. The calm eventually returns, although not before I found myself questioning how many more works Kilar has produced along similar formulaic lines.

The period of around twenty years that separates the three 1970s works from the 1997 Piano Concerto seems to have softened and simplified Kilar’s language still further. We no longer have the violent interjections that hark back to his music of an earlier age. Instead, repetition plays a greater part. The gently oscillating rhythmic figuration of the piano part continues pretty much uninterrupted for the entire nine minutes of the opening movement. The composer relies on brief passages of modulation and tonal colouring for contrast. The sustained central movement is based around a solemn chorale introduced by the soloist at the opening of the movement. Beethoven is clearly in the background here. The vigorous final Toccata introduces the first fast music of the entire work, the piano’s insistent rhythmic patterns ultimately propelling the music to a dynamic conclusion.

The fact that this latest Kilar disc has failed to engage me in the way that the first Naxos release did is possibly a matter of familiarity more than anything else. On first acquaintance there is certainly an engaging quality about Kilar’s music yet repeated exposure to it, in particular his music of the 1970s and 1980s, underlines a somewhat predictable approach to structure and form. To be fair the Piano Concerto has moved away from this, albeit to an even greater simplicity of expression, yet although the surface of the music is undeniably attractive, it lacks the emotional depth and penetration of either Gorecki or Penderecki, to mention Kilar’s closest compatriots once again.

Enthusiasts of Kilar’s music and film scores can rest assured that at Naxos prices, this is a safe purchase with Antoni Wit and his Polish forces giving committed readings. Anyone wishing to explore the composer for the first time however would be advised to make a start with the earlier Naxos disc and in particular the two substantial works from the 1980s that form the centre-piece of that particular recording, Angelus and Exodus.

Gramophone, July 2006

A Polish film music composer, Wojciech Kilar’s Piano Concerto draws on influences as diverse as the Catholic liturgy and the Beethoven piano concertos. “Antoni Wit wrings every last gram of excitement and drama from this supercharged score.”

Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group