Hell Was Shut Off and Heaven Was Opened

The hated lockdown has never been associated in Poland with what it should be associated with – a tool for fighting the pandemic in a comprehensive manner based on Erasmus’ principle that prevention is better than cure. A tool requiring integrity and consistency from governments, insight and humility in the face of the unknown from experts, and ethical sensibility, solidarity and empathy from societies. The restrictions – annoying and incomprehensible to most Poles – have proved ineffective for a variety of reasons. Instead of giving us hope, they have left us believing that they undermine our freedom, that they become an element of a ruthless political fight, that they – and not the disease – lead to thousands of human tragedies and unprecedented crisis of our healthcare system.

Above all, however, they have destroyed in us the vestiges of our already underdeveloped communal thinking – an prerequisite of survival, thanks to which the United Kingdom is now exiting from a lockdown no one in Poland can even imagine. It emerges from lockdown not only healthier and more prudent, but also equipped with a range of skills developed in the most difficult moments of isolation. I’ve been watching the Brits’ musical initiatives from the beginning of the pandemic – with growing admiration. Culture in the British Isles has not frozen even for a moment: it has simply become locked in people’s homes, connecting with the world by means of modern technology, which makes it possible not only to stay in touch with the audience, but also to continue earlier projects and make constructive plans for the future.

The fruits of such painstaking preparations include the first, still virtual, Easter Festival of the Oxford Bach Soloists – an ensemble founded in 2015 by Tom Hammond-Davies and from the very beginning operating as a musical community, bringing together renowned singers and orchestral musicians, students, amateurs, educators as well as scholars representing a variety of disciplines, from history and theology to literature studies and philology. The ensemble and its boss have set a rather extraordinary goal for themselves: to present Johann Sebastian Bach’s entire vocal legacy in chronological order and in combination with the context and purpose of each work. They have planned the venture for twelve years – who knows, the seemingly lost year of the great pandemic may have equipped them with interesting tools which might be used successfully in future seasons.

Tom Hammond-Davies. Photo: Nick Rutter

The programme of this year’s festival featured Cantatas BWV 4 and BWV 31 as well as the Easter Oratorio. Yet for a variety of reasons I will focus on St John Passion, a masterpiece which for some time has been winning back the performers and listeners by storm. Hans-Georg Gadamer writes in The Relevance of the Beautiful that the phenomenon of Passion music ranges “from the highest claims of artistic, historical and musical culture to the openness of the simplest and most heartfelt human needs”. It is indeed a communal phenomenon: it explains the meaning and purpose of suffering, teaches compassion, helps carry the burden of one’s fears and misfortunes. In their remarkable undertaking the Oxford Bach Soloists managed to fulfil all the conditions detailed by Gadamer and elevate St John Passion to the rank of a powerful metaphor for the current crisis.

Both of Bach’s surviving Passions date from his late period, after he became cantor at Leipzig’s St Thomas’ Church in 1723. His predecessor there was Johannes Kuhnau, an organist and music theorist, composer of a Passion According to St. Mark which had been performed alternately during Good Friday Vespers at St. Thomas’ and St. Nicholas’ in Leipzig since 1721. As he was writing his St John Passion, Bach expected it to be performed in his own church, yet as the practice observed in Leipzig would have it, the premiere of the new passion was to take place at St Nicholas’ Church. The misunderstanding came to light just four days before the event. At the last minute the cantor had to bring together a huge vocal-instrumental ensemble featuring musicians from both churches: his new piece was larger than any previous cantatas and the Magnificat, his first significant composition for Leipzig’s main churches. Despite these perturbations Bach’s St John Passion was heard in its original version on 7 April 1724. The starting point for the libretto was the Gospel of John, to which were added individuals verses from, among others, the Brockes Passion, a popular work at the time. The inconsistencies in the text later prompted Bach to introduce a number of modifications. This may be why St John Passion has been labelled an incomplete work, interrupted in the middle of its conception.

Just how undeserved the label is can be seen in the growing number of interpretations by the most distinguished specialists in historical performance. With their own experience of last year’s “St John Passion from isolation”, the Oxford Bach Soloists decided to add another dimension to their venture, inviting Thomas Guthrie to direct it. Guthrie, an English director, singer and actor, has for years been fascinated by the idea of staging a musical work not only through a dialogue between the artists and the audience, but also in terms of communal experience – being part of the narrative of the work, experienced bodily and sensually by the performers.

Nick Pritchard as the Evangelist. Photo: Helena Cooke

Guthrie the director is like an honest and ingenuous child: he knows that miracles happen in the theatre and he knows how to convince his audience of that. In 2017 I experienced this first-hand during a performance of The Magic Flute in Longborough, when he stepped into the role of performance creator to such an extent that he directed an unexpected technical break in the first act, addressing the audience as if they were a bunch of overgrown nursery school kids: much to those kids’ delight. Guthrie once compared the expression of singers to the cry of an infant who would not rest until it had conveyed its weighty message to all those present. I didn’t expect, however, that in St John Passion inside Oxford’s Christ Church Guthrie would look at the drama of Jesus, his judges, disciples and torturers through the eyes of a precocious child who understands more from this tragedy than many adults.

This was already felt in the opening chorus “Herr, unser Herrscher”, based on musical and rhetorical antitheses and making us realise the paradox of Jesus’ glory and humiliation. In his staging Guthrie plays with literally every gesture, colour and prop. Wherever in the music we have earth and the temporal world, the image sparkles with bright colours. When Bach transports us to Heaven, Guthrie paints it using pastel, even unreal hues. Christ’s Passion is black and white, shrouded in a grey mist of pain. The masterful camerawork brings to mind associations with old painting, in which artists smuggled elements of their own world into the biblical landscape. In Guthrie’s staging our rightful companions in the Way of the Cross include microphones on sliding tripods, flashing  camera lights, clothes abandoned in the aisle and instrument cases.

Peter Harvey (Christ) and Hugh Cutting.

The director was just as meticulous in making sure that there would be inner tension between all the participants in the dramatic action, from the main characters to the individual orchestral musicians (needless to say, all involved in the performance fully respected the rules of physical distancing). The Oxford Passion is equally an open allegory and a deeply lived experience of community – with the narrated story, with the other performers, with oneself. This is hugely thanks to Nick Pritchard as the Evangelist – sung with a light and superbly articulated tenor, beautifully open in the upper register – who supported his vocal artistry with excellent acting, creating an unforgettable portrayal of a fragile, often helpless witness to a tragedy, overwhelmed with despair. Just as memorable was Peter Harvey’s Christ: subdued, bitter, fearful in the face of impending death. I think that some shortage of volume in his beautiful and technically assured voice worked fine in such a concept of the role. Alex Ashworth was a movingly human, dithering Pilate, singing with a baritone that was robust, agile and spot-on when it came intonation. Worthy of note among the other soloists were Lucy Cox with her luminous, truly joyful soprano (a riveting “Ich folge dir gleichfalls mit freudigen Schritten”), the countertenor Hugh Cutting, whose rendition of “Von den Stricken meiner Sünden” sent shivers down my spine, and, especially, the velvety-voiced Ben Davies, who impressed with his cultured singing and extraordinary sensitivity in the bass arioso “Betrachte, meine Seel, mit ängstlichem Vergnügen” from the scourging scene.

When it comes to the singing of the chorus I was impressed above all by their understanding of the text, delivered with ardour, pain and compassion, and at the same time exemplary voice projection and a touch of individuality, which I value highly in performances of Baroque music. In the instrumental ensemble every musician was in a class of his or her own. I am also full of admiration for the elegance and effectiveness of the conducting of Tom Hammond-Davies, who directed the whole performance in the rather difficult acoustic conditions of Christ Church, with the musicians placed rather untypically and widely apart at times.

I keep thinking about this Passion and constantly hope to hear it live one day performed by these artists in Guthrie’s staging: simple, economical, painfully thought-provoking. Is it really necessary to die so many times in order to finally rise from the dead? Hasn’t there been enough of this suffering?

Translated by: Anna Kijak

Das Antipodengold

Last season I cried bitterly over the cancellation of Die Walküre at the Longborough Festival Opera. I expected – naïvely – that in our (not just operatic) life we would follow the famous “hammer and dance” strategy proposed by Tomas Pueyo as early as last March. According to this strategy, in the first stage we would try to suppress the epidemic as much as possible and then gradually “unfreeze” some areas of activity, introducing short lockdowns if necessary. This was to be done consistently and without any compromises: with the hope of returning to the pre-crisis era as quickly as possible. Time has shown that the model, seemingly so rational and obvious, requires cooperation on the local and international level. We now know that the cooperation has been a failure and that the various countries – for a variety of reasons among which public health was pushed aside with priority being given to the interests of some groups within society – have implemented their own “strategies” often standing in stark contrast with the latest information about the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

I did not expect that Anthony Negus would nevertheless take the risk and set off for Australia to conduct Das Rheingold, the first part of Wagner’s Ring, for Melbourne Opera. He plucked up his courage at a point when Australia’s state of Victoria had announced victory over the virus, bringing down the level of infections to almost zero and making it possible for local institutions to take on cultural challenges unimaginable to the Europeans as yet. This is worthy of note all the more so given the fact that Melbourne Opera is an organisation which can rely on the support of only its friends and sponsors – despite its impressive history, beginning in 2002, when the company was set up thanks to the efforts of individuals like Zelman Cowen, expert on constitutional law of the Commonwealth and former Governor-General of Australia; Richard Divall, a pupil of Harnoucourt, Mackerras and Goodall, music director of the hugely successful 1987 Sydney Alcina with Joan Sutherland as well as earlier performances of Lohengrin and Les Troyens at the Victoria State Opera featuring the phenomenal Alberto Remedios; Sir Rupert Hammer, member of the Australian Liberal Party; and Joan Sutherland herself. In 2018 Rossini’s Otello was directed for Melbourne Opera by Bruce Beresford, the director of Driving Miss Daisy, a film that was popular in Poland as well.

At the entrance to the Regent Theatre. Photo: Melbourne Opera

If we add to that the Richard Divall Emerging Artists Programme, established less than three years ago to support the professional careers of the most talented local singers, Melbourne Opera can aspire to be called one of Australia’s most thriving operatic institutions. Most of the company’s activities focus on the Melbourne Athenaeum, a building erected in 1839 and altered many times since. The recent premiere of Das Rheingold was presented across the street, at the Regent Theatre, where in 1929 the most impressive picture palace in the state’s capital was opened, boasting over three thousand seats, a Wurlitzer organ, a Neo-Gothic lobby, a Louis XVI-style auditorium and a Neo-Baroque “Spanish” ballroom. In April 2019 a major renovation of the building began and was completed in January 2020.

Soon after the re-opening with the famous production of War Horse from London’s Royal National Theatre – the first stage production in the ninety-year history of the Regent Theatre – the building had to close its doors because of the attack of the COVID-19 virus. When the pandemic was suppressed, the theatre reopened again with a production of Das Rheingold, a prologue to Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, initially planned for mid-2020 and eventually premiered on 3 February 2021. Everything went according to plan, although almost till the very last moment Negus had to take into account the possibility of not being able to leave the United Kingdom and having to pass the baton to David Kram, who had conducted a production of Tannhäuser in Melbourne. And so, almost imperceptibly to European opera fans, a breakthrough in “pandemic” Wagner performances took place. A privately funded company presented the world’s first pandemic staging of Wagner’s opera and at the same time a foretaste of the entire Ring, which should be presented in Melbourne in 2023.

Rebbecca Rashleigh (Woglinde), Louise Keast (Wellgunde), Simon Meadows (Alberich), Karen van Spall (Flosshilde), and Strange Fruit Performers Emily Ryan and Lily Paskas Goodfellow. Photo: Robin Halls

How Das Rheingold sounds under Negus’ inspired direction was something I could experience already in 2019 in Longborough. I did not expect that Melbourne Opera would decide, on the spur of the moment, to stream the last performance. When it did, I jumped at the opportunity fully aware that Negus was working in Australia in conditions less favourable than at the LFO: without an orchestra pit, with some musicians placed in the stalls of the Regent Theatre, with a cast made up largely of young singers not necessarily experienced as Wagnerians, with a staging put together on a shoestring and in accordance with the aesthetics of the earlier productions by Suzanne Chaundy, who has collaborated with Melbourne Opera on a majority of its project in recent years.

The result exceeded my wildest expectations. Negus’ interpretation has settled and despite some shortcomings in the orchestra it has become even more distinctive. For Negus the key to Wagner’s narrative is pulse –incessant, permeating each phrase, turning all, including the smallest, elements of the macroform into a whole. The “music of the beginning” praised by Thomas Mann begins to sway already in the first bars of the prelude, polished intricately in every instrument part separately only to gradually pile up in a relentless mass of successive passages and then subside like a dead wave, giving way to Woglinde’s first phrase “Weia! Waga! Woge, du Welle”. Negus chisels the various leitmotifs confidently: he doesn’t shy away from seemingly excessive roughness of the structure heralding the coming of the giants or from the intense lyricism of the musical symbol of the curse of love, or the ecstatic energy of the rainbow motif. Everything in this score breathes, laughs, cries, calls for help and mercy, and tells the story so swiftly that in the final procession of the gods we can already hear echoes of the following parts of the Ring. The unassuming master of Longborough possesses a skill which eludes a majority of today’s Wagner conductors: he gives formal cohesion to what otherwise would be only a formless stream of musical events.

James Egglestone (Loge), Lee Abrahmsen (Freia), Jason Wasley (Froh), Eddie Muliaumaseali’i (Wotan), Sarah Sweeting (Fricka), and Darcy Carroll (Donner). Photo: Robin Halls

No wonder that in such a narrative the soloists moved with an assurance of stage actors, portraying their characters with full commitment and conviction. It is hard to assess the skills of the various singers on the basis of the imperfect streaming quality. Yet I wouldn’t hesitate to say that there were virtually no weak links in the cast of the Australian Rheingold, with several artists managing to create outstanding interpretations. This applies particularly to Simon Meadows’ Alberich, Shakespearean in his tragedy; James Egglestone’s Loge, seductive in his cunning and dangerous charm; and Lee Abrahmsen’s movingly vulnerable Freia. Suzanne Chaundy provided the whole with a rather conventional though at times striking stage setting – in terms of theatrical imagination, however, it was inferior to the modernist simplicity I got used to during my annual visits to Longborough.

I watched the streaming… and I grieved even more, as Norwid writes in his poem “My song”. In order for Wagner to return to European stages in full glory, we need governments as wise and indomitable as that of Australia, which is fighting the pandemic by means of the model “hammer and dance” strategy. A few days after the last performance in Melbourne and slightly more than a week before a performance in Bendigo, the state of Victoria announced another strict and short lockdown – after  only thirteen (!) new cases had been diagnosed. Hopefully by Wednesday the restrictions will be lifted and everything will get back to normal. I’m quite seriously considering a trip to Melbourne to see the entire Ring des Nibelungen in 2023. I’m afraid that Negus’ Australian venture has more chances of success than the Longborough Ring planned for the following year. Would that I were wrong this time!

Translated by: Anna Kijak

Writing Music About Life

I liked to argue with Andrzej Chłopecki. Uncompromising and mischievous, but at the same time very insightful, the contemporary music critic would build his opinions on solid theoretical foundations. And once he had built them, there was no mercy: a true Monsieur Sans-Gêne, he was the male version of the outspoken laundress. When punching, he would punch you hard, when loving, he would love you more than life itself. Nobody dared dispute the value of works produced by his few chosen ones, for those by Paweł Mykietyn. Yet when Chłopecki heralded the birth of a new star in the composing firmament and likened it to Krzysztof Penderecki’s daring beginnings at the turn of the 1970s, his younger fellow critics felt defiant. Chłopecki discovered the “unusual flow of an artist extraordinary” in Aleksander Nowak’s music. This was a subject of fiery dispute with his opponents. They wrote that Nowak shamelessly reached for old composing techniques, that his music actually lacked flow and that the face the undeservedly praised epigone of the “Stalowa Wola generation” revealed in his pieces was not one of a postmodernist, but one of a common mountebank. I have once myself yielded to the suggestions coming from the “progressivists” and mistakenly stuffed Nowak’s compositions into a deep drawer labelled “even newer romanticism”.

What happened to the Gliwice-born composer’s work that made us all suddenly change our minds? Quite possibly nothing happened to it. It was us who changed, or maybe just grew to appreciate the musical “life-writing”, as his method was aptly described by Andrzej Chłopecki. Since the beginning, Nowak’s strategy has been about interweaving superficially banal fragments of everyday life with the universal mythical tissue of human existence. The composer refers to formative memories, listens to others, closely observes reality, cools down emotions and tries to establish a connection with the listener. As he has once himself stressed, he finds music to be “a form of communication which does have individual «senders» and «receivers», but its actual message is transferred rather on the level of collective than individual consciousness”. Every piece written by Nowak has a text behind it: the text, however, does not have to be a poem or a libretto assigning functions to particular voices in the score. Sometimes it is a song, a canticle recalled from the depths of memory, while at other times it might be somebody’s note or a superficially banal anecdote. There is no parody or pastiche here, only deeply moving dialogue with the past, sometimes not distant at all and sometimes lost in the darkness of myth.

Aleksander Nowak. Photo: Dorota Kozińska

Nowak’s composer’s path started at the State Music School in Gliwice. It was there that Uliana Biłan, a Lviv conservatoire graduate, working as an accompanist, was helping the young guitar student make up for his shortcomings in harmony and ear training. While doing that, she brought to his attention treasures of 20th-century musical literature, first and foremost Messiaen and Shostakovich. It was her who encouraged Nowak to undertake his first attempts at forging thoughts and emotions into a score. It was thanks to her that he became sure of his intent to create structures in which each element – from melody, through rhythm, to texture – would start to speak to the listener with its own voice, win them over completely and on every level of communication.  In 2001, Nowak started regular studies at the faculty of composition of the Academy of Music in Katowice, tutored by Aleksander Lasoń, a major representative of the aforementioned “Stalowa Wola generation”. Lasoń had always adored “pure” music and treated composition as a task of craftsmanship. He proved, however, a limitlessly patient professor for his, somewhat lost, new student. Lasoń let Nowak search – first as if blindfolded, then gradually more consciously – for a path leading to his individual idiom: one of music sounding naturally, but composed from a multitude of unconventionally joined building blocks. It is narration bursting with quotations, self-quotations and crypto quotations, sonically glittering charades, musical riddles, sometimes unsolvable.

Nowak’s first successful attempt at his “life-writing” opened up a path to cooperation with the PWM. It was the Sonata ‘June-December’  for violin and piano (2005), the initial part of which is based on a quotation from a simple melody for a piece Nowak wrote as Biłan’s student at high school. Conversations with Andrzej Chłopecki and Eugeniusz Knapik made him realise how far-reaching the horizons of contemporary music can be. Marcin Trzęsiok enabled Nowak to sail out to the high seas of musical aesthetics and helped to locate his work within a context of philosophy and history of culture. In 2006, granted a Moritz von Bomhard Fellowship, Nowak began 2-year studies in composition at the University of Louisville, tutored by Steve Rouse.

It was, however, earlier that a breakthrough happened. In 2005, shortly before receiving his diploma from the Katowice Academy, Nowak realised a dream of his youth. He participated in a high-seas sail to Svalbard. A year later, a hundred years after Roald Amundsen’s conquest of the Northwest Passage, the composer embarked on the Polish yacht “Stary” and sailed by Sweden, Denmark, Norway, the Shetlands, and the Faroes to reach Iceland. He financed the enterprise with the first installment of the „Förderpreise für Polen” scholarship from the Munich-based Ernst von Siemens Musikstiftung. The second installment was promised to him for completing a serious composing commission – a musical journal of the journey to the North Sea. After his return, having already begun his studies in Louisville, Nowak embarked on composing Fiddler’s Green and White Savannas Never More for male voices and chamber orchestra. The piece’s premiere, at the Lviv Velvet Curtain festival in October 2006, was received with an ovation. Founded on irony and anxiety, the longing for Fiddler’s Green – sailors’ legendary realm, a land of perpetual gaiety, never-quiet fiddle and unwearying dancers – resounded also with a longing for a renewal of the form of the symphonic poem: in a coherent, yet multi-threaded shape, skillfully highlighted with a masterful layering of texture in the orchestra. It was also in the United States that Nowak wrote the Last Days of Wanda B. (2006), “a record of emotions accompanying the farewell and a set of still-frame memories, interwoven with remnant quotations from her favourite melodies” dedicated to his recently deceased grandmother. The personal thread started to play an ever more significant part in the composer’s work, at the same time quite unexpectedly intertwining with his new fascination, one with the form of opera, which continues until now.

Sudden Rain. Photo: Bartłomiej Sowa

The chamber opera Sudden Rain was Nowak’s diploma piece crowning his studies with Rouse. It premiered in 2009, at the The Teatr Wielki – Polish National Opera in Warsaw. It was there that She, He and Something else – tropes accompanying all Nowak’s subsequent stage works – appeared for the first time. The composer and the librettist, Anna Konieczna, put fragments of letters and notes written by a person with Asperger’s syndrome together with a conversation of a married couple on the day of their wedding anniversary. She had been waiting for a proof of love, He gave her freedom, which She interpreted as a prophecy of parting. Something stood in their way: the Something was unawareness of one’s own emotions and inability to express the heart of the matter beyond words and silence. It proved, for the first time, that Nowak was not in the least an epigone of the “Stalowa Wola generation”, that he could juggle both tradition and the sound of the avant-garde, the latter being what his teachers had once rebelled against.

At the next stage of his career, Nowak started composing what might be classified as exercises before a large, full-scale opera. These include: the Dark Haired Girl in a Black Sports Car for chamber orchestra (2009), based on an anecdote about a woman seen in the traffic who “drove away after a moment, never looking in my direction”; King of the Cosmos Disappears for orchestra, threads and piano (2010) – about a schoolmate who called himself the master of the Cosmos and disappeared without a trace; Concerto for Guitar in Peculiar Tuning and Chamber Orchestra (2012); and the Half-filled Diary (2013) presented in this recording.

After a year of cooperation with Georgi Gospodinov, a Bulgarian poet, prose writer and playwright, the Space Opera (2015) was born. It is a story of the first manned journey to Mars, told from points of view including that of a stowaway accompanying the two astronauts – a fly who had wandered into the spaceship’s capsule. The music Nowak built around this narrative is difficult, woven from heterogenous and fascinating chords, rich in its orchestral layer, sensual in the vocal parts, with clever references to the legacy of 20th-century titans, primarily that of the not-so-obvious-anymore Stravinsky. Nowak set out to construct his own mythical universe: in his first “true” opera, he created a vision of an apocalypse of disregarded beings, reaching beyond the anthropomorphic way of representing nature.

Working on Ahat-Ili – Sister of Gods (2018) with libretto by Olga Tokarczuk, based on her novel Anna In in the Tombs of the World, Nowak persuaded the writer to make Ninszubur, Inanna’s mortal confidant, the primary character of the story. Each of the five main characters was assigned a separate element, while each of the elements was assigned its own microharmonic structure. The world-governing rule was rendered with a mysterious twelve-tone chord, which appears at the onset of the composition and later reappears like a leitmotif. Ninszubur, the confidant’s monologues correlate with a cello melody referencing a Sumerian hymn, which survived to this day in the Persian dastgah-e nava melodic pattern and in a related Arabic maqam. The flawlessly written music in this opera, planned with a great sense of dramaturgy, seduces us with a subtle and unobvious beauty, supported with an uncommon sonic imagination – proved in fragments such as the duet of the countertenor Dumuzi and the contralto Ereszkigal, where Nowak juxtaposed two voices of similar ranges and tessituras, yet a completely different timbre.

Marek Moś and AUKSO during rehearsal of Ahat Ilī in Gdańsk, 2020. Photo: Dorota Koperska

Nominating Nowak for the prestigious “Paszport Polityki” award, I wrote that I was doing it because of his “creative independence and an original musical perspective on the world”. I added that he was most worthy of the award for Ahat Ilī, which “restores faith in the future of the opera”. Nowak won the award, which is all the more important, as he emphasises himself, in light of the fact that he had not won any composition competition before. A few months later, he announced the premiere of another piece, Drach, a fruit of his cooperation with Szczepan Twardoch, the author of the novel by the same title. The first performance took place over the three evenings of the Auksodrone festival at the Mediateka in Tychy, in October 2019. Nowak called his new piece for soloists, strings and looper dramma per musica, thus reaching for the roots of the operatic form. Twardoch distilled the essence out of his Drach, making personified emotions the protagonists and leaving but very few remnants of the plot and dramaturgy of the original in place. Nowak framed the composition into three short “chapters”, set on a few parallel planes. The narrative – as the ever-reborn Drach – develops in a circular manner, from a prologue using the harpsichord tuned to a meantone temperament, where the first musical suggestions of a “perpetual return” appear, through singing supported by a harmonically distorted accompaniment, to “romanticising” culminations and returning to the baroque part symbolising the primeval beginning.

In the near future, about which Nowak – very aptly – says “it is difficult to foresee, but possible, with a certain probability, to assume”, we are in for at least two important premieres of his compositions: „Prawda?”  [Truth?] Symphony No. 1 and Syreny [Sirens] – „melodramma aeterna”, yet again with libretto by Szczepan Twardoch. It is probably high time we agreed with Chłopecki, even if it is in the afterworld. Nowak’s music seduces with a quality that our ireful and distrustful generation has scorned for long years – it is simply beautiful.

Translated by: Mikołaj Witkowski

Drach Sempiternal Seed

Instead of a teaser – the CD is already available all over Europe: stay at home and go to the PWM’s online shop: https://pwm.com.pl/en/sklep/publikacja/drach-dramma-per-musica,aleksander-nowak,24030,ksiegarnia.htm. The LP on vinyl is ready for purchase here: https://pwm.com.pl/en/sklep/publikacja/drach-dramma-per-musica,aleksander-nowak,23931,ksiegarnia.htm.


The action of the second chapter of Szczepan Twardoch’s novel Drach is set in the years 1241, 1906, and 1918. As in the whole book, events take place on all the temporal levels at once. The chapter opens with the words: “A tree, a human, a roe deer, a stone. All the same.” A moment later, we hear the same words spoken in Silesian by old Pindur, who is a village philosopher and at the same time a village fool, derided by everyone around, but penetrating deep into the past with his instinct. For a brief moment we find ourselves in 1906 and sit on a fallen trunk with Pindur and eight-year-old Josef, called Zeflik by some. The libretto of the opera Drach, written by Twardoch himself, starts with similar words, but in Silesian: Czowiek, chop i baba, sŏrnik, hazŏk, kot a pies, a strōm, wszyjsko to samo (“A human, man and woman, roe deer, hare, cat and dog, and the tree, all the same”), sung this time by Drach, who is Pindur at the same time. He is a doubly omniscient narrator; not only a holy fool whom little Zeflik listened to, swinging his legs shod in shapely bootees; not only the dragon of Silesian legends, but the serpent of old, the gnostic Ouroboros, god of fertility and the dead, symbol of all things being one. He is everything: taste and smell, light and darkness, pure sunshine, tree and stone, a sacrificial offering and the barking of dogs, the earth damaged by tanks’ caterpillar tracks and furrowed by trenches, the soil that devours dead bodies and spits new life out of its entrails in the spring. He is a creature that sees, feels and hears everything, has a part in everything, is everyone, and is inferior to none.

When Aleksander Nowak told me of his intention to compose Drach and later sent me Twardoch’s complete libretto, I was afraid even to look at the text. True enough, I had already had the chance to see how Nowak takes advantage of his extraordinary sense of operatic potential inherent in contemporary literature, and of his equally uncommon ability to persuade writers that they should grapple with a form seemingly alien to their own sensitivity. The scripts of his successive operas have emerged as a result of painstaking negotiations and of equally laborious effort to educate the authors, who, though inexperienced in this field, under the composer’s guidance came up, to their own surprise, with clear and coherent narrations unfolding simultaneously on several levels and suited to the conventions of the music theatre. The libretto of Space Opera, written by Georgi Gospodinov, the Bulgarian master of ‘private apocalypse’, tells the story of the first manned flight to Mars from the perspective of an astronaut (married) couple, a stowaway fly that travels with them, the cynical flight manager, and a Chorus of Souls, made up of all the creatures ever sent by humans into the outer space. Its masterly construction in sixteen scenes (including prologue and epilogue) brings to mind associations with Britten’s Death in Venice. During his work on Ahat-ilī – Sister of Gods, based on Olga Tokarczuk’s Anna In in Tombs of the World, the composer managed to persuade the writer to shift the accents in her narration, confuse the protagonists’ tongues, and make the tale theatrical using all the means available. Both these projects undeniably proved a success. As for Drach, the idea was initiated in October 2018 by Filip Berkowicz, originator and curator of Auksodrone festival in Tychy, who wanted a ‘Silesian’ opera based on a Silesian topic and featuring a Silesian orchestra – AUKSO, under the baton of another Silesian, Marek Moś; an opera emerging as the joint work of a composer and a writer from that region. Still, I could hardly imagine how a vast and multi-layered saga of two families could possibly be condensed into a music work for three soloists and chamber orchestra with harpsichord, taking a bit more than an hour to perform.

Gleiwitz, Germaniaplatz, ca. 1915

Nowak warned his audience in advance that the unusual libretto replaces the traditional protagonists with personified emotions, whereas of the original plots and dramatic concepts only some vestigial traces have been preserved. As the composer had predicted, Szczepan Twardoch had rejected this proposal at first. Though they had Silesian roots in common, and shared memories of secondary school, artistically speaking they seemed to be poles apart. Twardoch later admitted that the idea appeared to him just as absurd as if he had been asked to dance in a ballet. He changed his mind, though, during a wintertime walk in the waterlogged fields near Pilchowice. He spotted roe deer, and when the beautiful creatures bolted away, he recalled that they also lived in Jakobswalde, had no names, and left their faeces in the fields. He recalled that he remembered it all, like Drach and Pindur, and so he decided he would start with the deer. He thus got down to writing, or rather – to distilling Drach into a myth about Silesia’s arché, the cyclic nature of time, and the inseparable link between humans and nature. The work took him less than a year. Nowak indefatigably supported his new librettist and patiently introduced him to the secrets of contemporary opera.

Nowak labelled his new piece with the old-fashioned term dramma per musica, thus referring to the origins of the operatic form and to the historical characteristics of late 16th / early 17th-century ‘music drama’, such as: declamatory recitatives resembling human speech; the use of the instrumental layer to emphasise the message and meaning of each situation; intense interplay of affections, supported by the introduction of selected rhetorical figures. The whole opens with a prologue, featuring a harpsichord in meantone temperament, which affords a highly expressive use of chromatic progressions. Already this extensive introduction comprises musical suggestions of the ‘eternal return’, from incessant repetitions of one and the same note to a rhetorical katabasis in the form of a descending melodic line. From the very beginning, the harpsichord produces disturbing and false-sounding ‘patterns’ centred around a few stable tonal centres.

Pig slaughter near Pilchowice at the beginning of 1920th

The drama proper, told in three languages (Polish, Silesian, and German), takes on a curious, seductively beautiful musical form, meandering (or rather circularly reverting) from the Baroque beginnings to the extremes of modernism and back. This music curls in on itself like the immortal Drach – from expressive solo parts supported by a harmonically distorted accompaniment, to an interplay of tensions, brought to a halt and then relaxed in the ensemble sections, to truly Strauss-like tutti culminations. Nowak subdivided his work into three brief chapters, in which, as in Space Opera, the action takes place on several parallel planes. There is ‘realistic’ narration, in the form of He’s flashes of memories from his childhood and from the Great War; the story of his marriage to the girl who owned six acres in Żernica; as well as the episode of infidelity, which led him to murder and eventually madness. This interweaves with the ‘expressive’ narration, which represents pure emotions, both human and animal: the anxiety of a chased doe and her lost fawn; the mortal fear of a pig being slaughtered; the longing of a mother; the hunger of dogs; the pain of a neglected wife, and the lust of an unfaithful husband who does not have the courage to tell his spouse about “yonder German lass from Gliwice.” The vehicle of both these narrations is He’s baritone and She’s soprano, who stand for the male and all his women – the mother, the wife, and the lover. Both also symbolise the eternal ‘voice of all things’ – of the hare, the cat, the dog, the stone, and the tree. Of those creatures that live on Drach’s body and those that rot inside it after their death; also those that are born of the soil fertilised with the mortal remains. The human voice imperceptibly transforms into a pig’s squealing or a fawn’s grunting. All the same. Drach comments on all this from a distance, with the ambivalent voice of a countertenor, closing each ‘chapter’ of the drama with a prayer to himself, multiplied by a looper, which sounds now like a medieval lament, now – like a luminous Lutheran chorale.

Drach is not an opera about Silesia, just as the original novel is not about the writer’s Heimat. The operatic and the literary Drach is a soul that informs all living creatures. By paying homage to this soul, Nowak and Twardoch ennoble their Silesian homeland and elevate it into the sphere of myth, as the ultimate cause of all being and the fundamental component of reality; of a world governed by deterministic chance and by the ruthless laws of nature, in which everything is one, everything has its end, and everything returns. Thus all things are in Drach and are from Drach; Drach is dirt, coal, flesh, and sunshine.

The First Holy Communion of my uncle Henryk. Kattowitz, Königshütter Straße in the first half of 1940th

Time gets even denser in the last chapter of Twardoch’s novel, whose action takes place in 1915–1918, 1921, 1925, 1938, 1939, 1945, 1986, and 2014. This chapter ends with the sentence: “Frozen bare-calved corpses in the snowbound fields in front of the hospital; the January wind tears at their hospital gowns.” In the third chapter of Nowak’s opera, a soldier shoots at his own brother near Gliwice; a pack of dogs hunts down a doe between Pilchowice and Stanica, and Josef tightens the deadly grip around Caroline’s neck. Everything dies. “The light shineth not in darkness; and the darkness comprehendeth it.” And yet, catharsis will come, for it is only through death that the secret can be found out. Death lets one fathom the mystery of Silesia, get reconciled to its tragic history, refer to the collective wisdom and experience of the Silesian population. Curled in on himself, trampled by humans and deer, riddled with mineshafts, Drach watches from aside and prophesies: “Whoever is born shall die, and who dies must be born again.” This is the order of every world, even the smallest one.

Translated by: Tomasz Zymer

There and Back Again, or a Biography Enclosed in Song  

I am happy to announce that the new album Romuald Twardowski. Songs & Sonnets – the part of the series Portraits under the label of Anaklasis, launched by PWM Editions – was published at the end of October. The CD is already available to purchase all over Europe: stay at home and go to the PWM’s online shop: https://pwm.com.pl/en/sklep/publikacja/songs–sonnets,romuald-twardowski,23970,ksiegarnia.htm. Instead of a teaser, I post my text from the album booklet here. Enjoy!


Three coincidences in succession can no longer be called a coincidence, someone said. The first working of fate is that Romuald Twardowski’s birthplace, Vilnius, was also the cradle of the Polish Romanticism, the city “one can never truly leave,” if I may paraphrase Czesław Miłosz’s poem. Before the war Twardowski spent his childhood days in the eastern part of the Old Town, in what was then Metropolitarna Street, half way between Writers’ Lane, packed full of first- and second-hand bookshops (where Adam Mickiewicz had lived following his return from Kaunas, and where he had been arrested in the autumn of 1823), and the 19th-century Georgian-style Cathedral of the Theotokos. The second ‘chance event’ took place one winter afternoon during the war, in Zamkowa Street, the main road of the medieval Vilnius. The little Romek was gazing at the window display of a music instruments shop when he was approached by a kind gentleman, who, as it turned out, was an ex-member of one of Petersburg’s orchestras. His name was Władysław Gelard. He discovered the passion for playing music in the boy, made  him a gift of a violin, and gave him free lessons throughout the war. The third coincidence made Romek put his violin aside. After the war, the Holy Cross Church, abandoned by the Knights Hospitallers, was also lacking an organist. In the hope of filling this vacancy, a monk who knew Twardowski recommended him to the piano teacher Maria Zgirska, who quickly prepared the young man for further apprenticeship with organist and choirmaster Jan Żebrowski. It was also the latter who awakened Twardowski’s latent gift for composition.

Vilnius, Zamkowa Street at the beginning of the 20th century

The combination of these rather curious circumstances undoubtedly determined the life decisions of the boy from Vilnius Old Town. He studied composition with, among others, Julius Juzeliūnas at the Lithuanian State Conservatory. It is possibly to the latter that Twardowski owes his predilection for stylistic diversity, ranging from late Romantic aesthetic to dodecaphony to minimalism, and combined with an openness to the worlds of folk and traditional music. After moving to postwar Poland, he continued his music education under the guidance of one of Poland’s most eminent neo-Classicists, Bolesław Woytowicz, whose music betrays a strong influence of the French impressionism. With Nadia Boulanger in Paris he studied, first and foremost, plainchant and medieval polyphony. Twardowski frequently derived inspiration from tradition, daringly juxtaposing classical with modernist elements. He emphatically stressed his opposition to “those who preach novelty at any cost.” He created his own musical language, to which he referred, a bit provocatively, as “neo-archaism”. At the same time, though, he did not impose limitations on himself, and skilfully adjusted the character of each piece to the semantic and emotional content which it was meant to convey. His love of literature, originating in his early Vilnius years, made him highly sensitive to the word, and therefore the human voice became a nearly indispensable element of his musical language.

Choral music is undoubtedly central to Twardowski’s output. He took this genre up on a major scale in the 1950s. To him it was, as he admits himself, a way of mapping out the uncharted territories and ‘neglected areas’ in Polish music. The other wasteland which most of our avant-garde composers have failed to cultivate, but which Twardowski once entered on a similarly grand scale, was music theatre, from his ‘romantic’ opera Cyrano de Bergerac (1962) to the morality play The Life of St Catherine (1981). His solo songs are less known but equally individual in style, highly expressive and filled with internal drama, at the same time – amazingly communicative. He wrote them throughout his career. For various reasons, together they add up to a kind of highly personal, in some cases almost intimate biography of the composer.

The works selected for this CD were written over the period of two decades, in 1970–1990. All of them represent Twardowski’s fully developed, individual style, and a masterful command of musical form. In Twardowski’s songs music plays a subordinate role to the text. Sometimes it hides ‘in the shadow’ of the words in order to highlight their meanings; on other occasions it actively reinforces the text, and brings out the emotions inherent in the lines of verse. Such an approach comes as no surprise if we consider the high calibre of the poetry taken up by Twardowski. Sonnets by Michelangelo (1988) are settings of three late poems by one of the greatest artists of the Italian Renaissance, in congenial Polish translations by Leopold Staff. Twardowski speaks here with his own language, albeit strictly subordinated to the moods of the aging Michelangelo, fascinated with the beauty and sensitivity of the nobleman Tommaso dei Cavalieri, affected by the inevitable passage of time, and torn between “fear and the phantoms of love and death.” Three Sonnets to Don Quixote, written two years later, constitute a similar homage to another Renaissance master, this time – a Spanish one. The title is a bit misleading, since in fact they are two sonnets plus a verse epitaph in honour of the knight errant. Nevertheless, all of them were written by Miguel de Cervantes and incorporated into his famous novel. Twardowski makes effective use of Anna Ludwika Czerny’s first postwar translation of Don Quixote, turning these three poems into a bitter-sweet musical portrait of a certain nobleman whose “brain got so dry” for lack of sleep and too much reading that “he finally lost his sense.” These provocatively ‘Woytowicz-like’ songs, rooted in the spirit of French music, attracting the ear with the freshness and wealth of various shades of sound – could well serve as a complement for Ravel’s last unfinished masterpiece, the cycle of three songs Don Quichotte à Dulcinée.

Composed a little earlier, in 1987, Three Songs to words by Stanisław Ryszard Dobrowolski may seem to be ‘lighter weight’, but they conceal a secret hinted at in their very sequence, which represents a progression from lyrical reflections on the departure of the beloved to the playful experience of reality in The Warsaw Sparrows, to the broad and familiar humour of Non è vero, sung ‘straight into the ear’. The other three cycles, despite variable atmosphere, are quite serious and can be read as miniature treatises on nostalgia, longing, and the sorrows of parting.

From the Viliya (1990) to words by Helena Massalska-Kołaczkowska, co-founder of Polish Radio Song Theatre and author of the lyrics of Alfred Gradstein’s late 1940s hit A Bridge to the Left, a Bridge to the Right as well as of several children’s fables set to music by Ryszard Sielicki, is a cycle dedicated by Twardowski to his mother Paulina. In these three brief songs, filled with references to Lithuanian folklore, the composer returns to the city of his childhood; to the Green Lakes near Vilnius, whose water owes its unusual colour to minerals washed off the chalk bottom; to the Łukiski (now Lukiškės) Square, where the famous Kaziuki fair has been held annually on St Casimir’s Day, complete with jugglers and people in fancy dress; and, finally, to the shore of the icebound Viliya, where sleigh rides with torches were held in the winter.

The five-part Face of the Sea (1979) to poems by Maria Pawlikowska-Jasnorzewska, Jacek Łukasiewicz, Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz, and Kazimierz Sowiński, can be considered, in some ways, as an echo of Twardowski’s earlier opera Lord Jim, where the composer employed the wistful motif of undulating sea waves. On the other hand, this cycle is part of the wider ‘seafaring’ trend known from that period.

The profoundly moving Trois sonnets d’adieu to words by three French poets of the late 16th and early 17th centuries (a mannerist, a libertine, and a member of La Pléiade) were composed in 1970, directly after the tragic and still unexplained death of composer Elisabeth Tramsen, Twardowski’s fiancée, the eldest daughter of a Danish surgeon who in 1943, as a member of an international committee, had conducted the autopsies of Polish officers, victims of the Katyn Massacre. Originally composed for bass-baritone and chamber orchestra, this cycle, and especially its last element, the sonnet by Pontus de Tyard in Wisława Szymborska’s phenomenal translation – serves as an excellent conclusion for the entire tale told on this album. “Come, much craved Sleep, wrap around my flesh / since I sincerely accept your cherished nightshade and poppy.” The end turns out to be a beginning. Sleep has come at last, and has dispelled anxiety, bringing genuine solace. Now everything could start over again.

Jan Kaczmarkiewicz: Portrait of a young composer (Romuald Twardowski)

The album has been programmed and the songs performed by Tomasz Konieczny, who is a great fan of Romuald Twardowski’s songs and a sincere enthusiast of the poetry set by this composer. It is thanks to Konieczny’s initiative that we can see how also in this field, much depleted after the war, Twardowski proved to be a skilful gardener. This may be why he never truly left Vilnius, either mentally or in his heart. It was in that city that Stanisław Moniuszko had settled for good in 1840 after his wedding to beloved Aleksandra née Müller, met several years earlier at a noblemen’s inn situated in Niemiecka Street. From Vilnius, Twardowski recalls the scattered pages of Moniuszko’s Songbook for Home Use, left behind in the turmoil of war and kicked around in the streets. Someone had to pick those pages up, and reassemble them into his own, quite separate songbook of life.

Translated by: Tomasz Zymer

A New Relief of Vienna

There used to be an inn here, called The White Ox, set up by shepherds and cattle traders by the tollgates of Vienna. In 1762 Leopold Mozart checked in here – on his first tour with his two child prodigies: daughter Nannerl and six-year-old son Wolfgang Amadeus. In the 1820s the inn was turned into an elegant restaurant and hotel, Zur Stadt London. There was also a fast coach station, from which Frédéric Chopin set off on his journey to Prague on 19 August 1829 at ten o’clock sharp. “I have already packed my sack, I just have to go to Haslinger, and from there to the café opposite the theatre, where I will find Gyrowetz, Lachner, Kreutzer, Seyfried, etc. In two nights and one day we will be in Prague; at 9 o’clock in the evening we will take the Eilwagen. It will be a lovely journey, lovely company,” Chopin wrote that day at dawn in a letter to Feliks Wodziński.

Other celebrities who stayed at the Zur Stadt London hotel, also known as Hôtel de Londres, included Friedrich Nietzche, Franz Liszt and Richard Wagner. In 1848 Robert Blum, a radical German poet who was opposed to the partitions of Poland and who wrote a play about Tadeusz Kościuszko, was arrested there. Towards the end of the century the property passed to a new owner, who constructed a new building, the Rabl Hotel, combining elements of Art Nouveau with the Neo-Baroque style. It was erected in 1902 according to a design by Carl Caufal, a fashionable architect at the time. Eight years later the hotel was acquired by the thriving Český dům cooperative and became the centre of the Czech community in Vienna. Leoš Janáček stayed at the hotel during the preparations for the Viennese premiere of Jenufa in 1918. A theatre, a choral society and the Lower Austrian branch of the Sokol Gymnastic Union were based there as well. Performances and concerts were held in a small ballroom located in the side wing.

So much history and yet the place is still so inconspicuous. The façade of the building, which has housed Hotel Post since 1942, is easy to miss among the tightly spaced buildings of Fleischmarkt. In the mid-20th century Wiener Kammeroper, established shortly after the war by the Hungarian-Austrian conductor Hans Gabor, found home here after numerous twists and turns. Exactly eight years ago the company was taken over by Theater an der Wien. A group of young artists, the Junges Ensemble, began to present performances in a small hall adjacent to the hotel, trying their hand not only at Baroque and contemporary operas, but also at intimate adaptations of masterpieces from the core repertoire. Nobody could predict that in 2020 the Kammeroper would turn from a kind of opera studio into a melting pot brimming with ideas – an experimental laboratory for solutions to overcome the crisis that has painfully affected the entire music sector and will not let go.

Miriam Kutrowatz (Idaspe). Photo: Eriks Bozis

Those who were lucky enough to get tickets for the September premiere of Vivaldi’s Bajazet – less than one hundred and fifty people, because half the seats in the auditorium had to be empty – stood in a side street, wistfully looking through the window at the closed theatre café. When the door finally opened, they quickly put on their masks and staggered inside to take their seats and shake off the evening chill. At first no one paid attention to an inconspicuous bespectacled man who was bustling around, bringing more and more props, then testing their acoustic properties with a smile on his face. After a while the spectators began to realise that the man was preparing a recording studio on stage. A few minutes passed. The mysterious bespectacled man brought the last object from the wings: an old-fashioned reel of tape. He crouched down on the proscenium and put it in the orchestra pit. At that moment the sounds of the Italian overture burst out from the depths. Played live, of course. Only then did everyone understand that the new production directed by Krystian Lada started before the opera itself. In a moment we were to find out that the inconspicuous man on stage could also be the cruel Tamerlano.

Last year, when I nominated Lada for the Passport Award of the Polityka weekly, I was not sure yet whether I wanted to give the award to a director and dramaturge or an opera activist. I believed that it was reasonable to nominate Lada, considering his belief in the vivacity of the form, his conviction that the opera speaking the language of a modern theatre would touch the hearts of the audience as authentically as a good movie or a novel, his courage in presenting the burning issues of today’s world on stage. This Warsaw-born young artist who now lives in Belgium found his way into opera via a route that was completely different from that of most Polish directors. He studied abroad: literary studies and dramaturgy at the University of Amsterdam. He was not yet thirty when he became director for dramaturgy and cultural promotion at La Monnaie. He worked as a journalist and editor. He wrote librettos, stage adaptations of literature and scripts for television programmes. He polished his skills as a dramaturge under the watchful eye of the best in the field, including Ivo van Hove and Pierre Audi. He participated in the Young Talents programme of the ENOA (European Network of Opera Academies). He was a member of the advisory team at Opera Europa, a Brussels-based non-profit organisation bringing together European opera houses and festivals. Three years ago he founded The Airport Society: an association of artists and activists who explore the subtle network of connections between contemporary opera, and the world of technology and the reality of current social phenomena. It was with this group that he made his debut as a director: with the performance Aria di Potenza, in which he highlighted the “operatic” aspect of politicians’ speeches, juxtaposing them with famous arias.

He attracted my attention shortly afterwards, in 2018, when he directed Bellini’s I Capuleti e i Montecchi at the Wrocław Opera. I realised during the pre-premiere interview that I was dealing with a sensitive and modern-thinking “theatre animal” rather than yet another arrogant progressive who had forced his way onto the opera stage. Lada carefully picked out the tropes contained in the musical text and tried to present them using the language of contemporary theatre. What’s more, he demonstrated that he had a sense of humour: in the Wrocław production he had the belligerent Capulets wear the Fowler Brotherhood’s uniforms and invited a delegation of Brotherhood members to the premiere. They came dressed in full fig and would not stop admiring the director’s concept.

Miriam Kutrowatz, Sofia Vinnik (Asteria), Rafał Tomkiewicz (Tamerlano), and Valentina Petraeva (Irene). Photo: Eriks Bozis

Since then Lada has been involved in several extremely different projects – from the monumental open-air Nabucco in Wrocław, through the shocking installation Unknown, I live with you in the former chapel of the Bridgettines in Brussels, featuring music by Katarzyna Głowicka and drawing on the poetry of the participants in the Afghan Women Writing Project – I wrote about the performance later that people cried, covered their eyes and then returned to watch and hear it all again – to Rossini’s Sigismondo at the Opera Rara festival in Kraków, where Lada brilliantly combined the musical narrative with references to Matejko’s historical paintings.

He directed the Viennese Bajazet in a similar spirit: half-joking and half-scary. This three-act opera, composed in 1735 for the opening of the Verona carnival, is really hard to grasp. In addition, in cannot in all honesty be called a work by Vivaldi, because it is an example of the pasticcio, a fashionable genre in those days, in which musical sections from operas by different composers were combined to create a new story with a completely new libretto. The complicated story of the Ottoman sultan Bajazet and his daughter Asteria held captive by Tamerlano, the ruler of the Uzbek Turks, was compiled by Vivaldi in a quite twisted manner. He himself wrote arias for the “good” characters and when it came to the villains he used music written by other composers: Giacomelli, Hasse and Broschi – perhaps to emphasise mischievously who really knew his musical métier.

Lada drew upon the ancient “theatre within theatre” convention, placing the action of the opera in a studio whose owner –Tamerlano, unsurprisingly – is making a radio drama about Bajazet. On a bright, almost empty stage (with just recording equipment and props for sound effects –  excellent set design by Didzis Jaunzems) – the drama unfolds with the actors not so much portraying their protagonists, but revealing, unintentionally and often against their will, their own identity, surprisingly similar to that of characters they play. It is basically a production about the power of conventions, stereotypes and ordinary human prejudices. It is not the “stranger”, the awe-inspiring Bajazet (Icelandic baritone Kristján Jóhannesson), but the inconspicuous Tamerlano (countertenor Rafał Tomkiewicz displaying excellent acting and vocal skills) who turns out to be a real villain. Tamerlano’s metamorphosis in the finale and the far-fetched happy ending concocted by the librettist have all the features of the grotesque. Only the “good” Idaspe (played by the phenomenal young Viennese singer Miriam Kutrowatz) – a friend of the “bad guy” Andronicus – remains a mystery until the very end. He observes the events from a distance and manipulates everyone at the same time. Is he a sound director responsible for the entire broadcast? An omniscient narrator? A sexless, emotionless spectre functioning on the fringes of human existence?

Valentina Petraeva, Rafał Tomkiewicz, Sofia Vinnik and Kristján Jóhannesson (Bajazet). Photo:Herwig Prammer

Some of Lada’s ideas seem to be almost over the top – like the partially animated projections of the wild fantasies of Tamerlano and his henchmen. Yet there are a few things that redeem them easily: the consistency of the overall concept, the perfect cooperation with the rest of the team, especially with Natalia Kitamikado, the designer of visually sophisticated costumes, and, last but not least, the fact that Lada understands the specificity of the opera form. He doesn’t content himself with adoring its allegedly old-fashioned and exotic beauty. He can talk to this beauty in her mother tongue.

The Bach Consort Wien was conducted in the Viennese Bajazet by the singer and conductor Roger Díaz-Cajamarca, who led the ensemble with energy and enthusiasm, though perhaps not very subtly. Fortunately, the singers could again rely on the director, who is well-versed in music. Lada knows how to place accents in a Baroque da capo aria, when to encourage singers to improvise, and when to restrain their ideas, whether to leave them empty-handed or, on the contrary, to give them lots of props so that they can focus on what they should focus.

If this season at Theater an der Wien passes without any major obstacles, can be looking forward to other surprises on the microscopic stage at the Fleischmarkt, including an intimate adaptation of Tristan and Isolde, which will be the directorial debut of the Wiener Staatsoper star, the bass Günther Groissböck. There are no stars at the Kammeroper. There are people young in age and spirit who want not to revive opera after the pandemic, but to keep it alive now – with a great deal of love and very little money.

Every Viennese knows the song about the “dear Augustin”, a street musician who during the Black Death plague of 1679 got drunk, blacked out, spent all night in a pit with dead bodies, and survived. Not everyone draws the right conclusions from the story – it is not a parable about artists being immortal. It is a song about the hope that someone will get them out of that lime pit. Krystian Lada and the young Theater an der Wien artists are certainly worthy of it.

Translated by: Ilona Duchnovic
Original article available at: https://www.tygodnikpowszechny.pl/nowa-odsiecz-wiedenska-165412

A Hard Act to Follow

I think I’ve waited too long with my report on this year’s MusikFest Berlin. I spent whole September, travelling between Warsaw, Berlin, Bayreuth and Vienna – and when I finally collected my thoughts, Europe found itself facing another lockdown. In Poland the situation is looking particularly dramatic: opera houses and concert halls are desperately trying to hold the events programmed for the season, but everything is hanging by a thread owing to a lack of big guns, i.e. tests, which enable artistic institutions to function relatively smoothly.  We have lost control over the pandemic. Weapons will soon be lacking and we won’t be able to cope.

That Polish musical life would be restarted with such huge support of the authorities, with such extensive security measures and – perhaps most importantly – with such a sense of joint civic responsibility as in Berlin was not something I dreamed about even for a moment. However, when I shared my impressions of that first trip, I expected at least some words of admiration for the foresight of the German organisers. Nothing of the sort happened – the predominant comments were along the lines of how terrible all this was, it’s impossible to work in such conditions and music would never recover from this disaster.

Yet at the Berliner Philharmonie the atmosphere was solemn, to say the least – despite the fact that the number of people allowed in the Grosser Saal, where all MusikFest concerts had been transferred, was the same as the number currently allowed at events in the red zone in Poland. And that was not all: the entire building was divided into six separate, precisely marked sectors to keep the distance and limit contact between people to a minimum. The ushers led every listener to their place separately, making sure they would fill in the location card. Concerts lasted about an hour, without any interval. The bookshop was closed and so were the buffets. No one had to be told how to wear the face mask correctly and I saw no “welders” with visors. Thanks to the distance kept between the listeners, we could remove our face coverings, but had to put them back on again for the applause – just in case the applause was enthusiastic, as the organisers rightly predicted.

Similar restrictions were imposed on the performers. Symphony orchestras played in reduced line-ups, artists kept a distance of at least two metres, which sometimes meant that musicians had to be placed in parts of the auditorium closed to the public. No flowers, no overinflated speeches, no handshakes, not to mention hugs or selfies with fans, a ritual so popular in Poland.

Klangforum Wien and Emilio Pomàrico. Photo: Monika Karczmarczyk

Despite the fact that virtually the entire festival programme had to be turned inside out, the few surviving longer concerts divided into two shorter ones with an interval of several hours and the final evening performed twice – sparks of mutual understanding literally flew between the auditorium and the stage. The distance necessitated by the situation did not affect the quality of the performances: indeed, I can honestly assure my readers that in some cases it strengthened the overall effect. I would even go as far as to say that the pandemic MusikFest was in many respects superior to previous years’ editions.

From the festival’s surprisingly rich offering I managed to choose five items spread over seven concerts in total. I had high hopes for the extended presentation of works by Rebecca Saunders, a master of musical chiaroscuro, who puts together a shimmering mosaic out of sounds interwoven with silence. I found her extraordinarily “tangible”, undulating compositional structures much more convincing when performed by Ensemble Musikfabrik conducted by Peter Rundel, especially in the chimerical Either or for two trumpets (Marco Blaauw and Nathan Plante, premiere) and in the mysterious, tense Skin for soprano (excellent Juliet Fraser) and 13 instruments (2015/16), inspired by Beethoven’s Piano Trio in D major “Ghost”, op. 70 no. 1 and Samuel Beckett’s 1975 television play. I was less impressed by a concert featuring Klangforum Wien, despite the involvement of the phenomenal accordionist Krassimir Sterev, who brilliantly combined recitation with playing the instrument in Flesh, a piece from 2018. Perhaps the works featured in the programme “scattered” too much in the spacious interior of the Grosser Saal: Saunders’ colourful sound clouds usually sound better in a more intimate venue. It is also possible that the first part of the ensemble’s performance under Emilio Pomàrico’s baton paled in comparison with the premiere of Der Lauf des Lebens by Georges Aperghis. The French master once again wove snatches of the text (from both parts of Goethe’s Faust, delivered by six members of Neue Vokalsolisten Stuttgart) in the quivering instrumental fabric, in which we can hear not just jazz riffs and echoes of Franco-Flemish polyphony, but also reverberations of Bach’s passions and cantatas – for example, in the form of an amazing microtonal fugue, which emerges from silence like the apparition at the ball in Faust and demonstrates that “bent is straight, and straight not so”. When it comes to musical dialogue with the legacy of Western culture, Aperghis still has few equals.

Ensemble Musikfabrik with Juliet Fraser (soprano) and Peter Rundel (conductor). Photo: Monika Karczmarczyk

Last year I waxed lyrical about the imagination and conducting artistry of Vladimir Jurowski, author of a captivating interpretation of Strauss’ Die Frau ohne Schatten, but bridled at the shortcomings of Anne Schwanewilms’ Empress. This time Schwanewilms did not have to cut through a massive orchestra; she was also helped by being placed on the side above the stage. She was excellent in Three Fragments from Wozzeck for soprano, orchestra and children’s choir – put together by Berg even before the premiere of the opera – especially in the moving prayer scene from the beginning of Act III, in which her voice was at last resonant and nicely rounded at the top. Applause is also due to the thirteen young singers from the Staatsoper placed above the orchestra several metres apart. Yet my deepest admiration is for Jurowski: for his excellent collaboration with the reduced RSB orchestra and very intelligent programme, which also featured Ricercar a 6 from Musikalisches Opfer in Webern’s transcription, Webern’s Variations op. 30 played with dazzling precision and, at the end, Schnittke’s Concerto grosso no. 1, a work bringing to mind a veritable whirl of associations with everything we have heard earlier, beginning with Bach’s elaborate counterpoints, through Webern’s serial patterns, to the strange similarity of mood with fragments of Wozzeck. Among the three soloists in Schnittke’s piece – Nadine Contini and Erez Ofer, and Helen Collyer on the prepared piano and harpsichord – I was impressed the most by Collyer with her unassuming simplicity of playing in the Prelude and Postlude. It takes considerable sensitivity for this compositional device not to become irritatingly banal.

I experienced different kinds of thrills during the RIAS Kammerchor’s concert conducted by Justin Doyle. The fate of the evening – owing to severe restrictions imposed on choirs – hung in the balance until the very last moment. The singers prepared a short programme ranging from pieces by Hildegard of Bingen to Caldara’s sixteen-voice Crucifixus, interspersed with Martin Baker’s organ improvisations. Given a thunderous ovation, after an encore they literally ran away from the stage in order to stay within the one-hour performance limit. It is better to play it safe – preliminary research results don’t make it possible yet to unequivocally assess the risk of pathogen transfer during choral singing.

Christian Gerhaher. Photo: Monika Karczmarczyk

The finale, featuring Berlin Philharmonic soloists, consisted of three compositions by Wolfgang Rihm, whose mature oeuvre is increasingly referred to as “new subjectivism”. The term can also be applied to a work performed that day for the first time: Stabat Mater for viola and baritone, composed in 2019 for Tabea Zimmermann and Christian Gerhaher. The intimacy of the composition has its roots in the Renaissance tradition, while its harrowing emotionality brings to mind Schubert’s Lieder. Rihm divides a mother’s grief and anger between two performers, placing the burden of the more violent emotions on the viola player – a very good choice given Zimmerman’s temperament. It would be interesting to hear the piece interpreted by other musicians one day: will there be a man who would convey the fragility of the baritone part with courage and humbleness equal to Gerhaher’s in Berlin? The evening’s programme was completed by Sphäre nach Studie for 6 instruments – a seductive composition in terms of colour, although not free from some longueurs – and the energetic, virtuosic Male über Male in the 2008 version, with the dependable Jörg Widmann playing the clarinet solo.

I returned home from the last MusikFest concert deeply convinced that only common sense could save us – that we would be able to survive the crisis thanks to the empathy and solidarity of the musical community. Today I read worrying news from all over Europe. And I still have this feeling that the Germans will make it. “What our Christmas will be like, will be decided in these coming days and weeks,” said Chancellor Angela Merkel. She didn’t have to add that this also concerned the future of music in this country. The Germans need only to be asked to behave responsibly.

Translated by: Anna Kijak

A Journey Into the Land of Illusion

This was meant to be a beautiful marriage. Elisabeth Friederike Sophie, daughter of Frederick, Margrave of Bayreuth, and Princess Wilhelmine of Prussia, Frederick the Great’s elder sister, dazzled no less a figure than Casanova, who pronounced her one of the most beautiful eligible ladies in Germany. Her charms were appreciated also by Charles Eugene, Duke of Württemberg – the twelve-year-old girl caught his eye in 1744, during his visit to the Bayreuth court. Other suitors, including the King of Denmark, had been queuing for the hand of the margrave’s daughter, but Elisabeth’s parents chose Charles, a protégé of his uncle Frederick. The young couple’s wedding, on 26 September 1748, came to be known as the most sumptuous celebration in the history of the Margraviate of Brandenburg-Kulmbach. The gifts the newlyweds received included a brand-new opera house – modelled on Italian box theatres, designed and made with great care by leading artists and craftsmen of the day.

The main person behind this unusual gift was Margravine Wilhelmine: a woman of many talents, including a talent for music. She learned to play the lute with none other than Silvius Leopold Weiss and later became a patron of the work of Bernhard Joachim Hagen, the last of the great German lutenists. In addition, she was also quite a talented composer. Some of her pieces have survived to this day and continue to generate keen interest among musicians. They include Clarinet Concerto in G minor – in which the obbligato flute part was sung with great pleasure by her husband or brother Frederick, pupils of the great flautist Johann Joachim Quantz – and the opera Argenore, written in 1740 for her husband’s birthday. The margravine may, in fact, have built the Bayreuth theatre, not so much thinking about her beloved only daughter and her husband, a great lover of arts, but intending to stage her own works there. After all, she had brought together a troupe of the finest instrumentalists and singers long before her daughter’s wedding, already in 1737.

Gismondo at the Margravial Opera House. Photo: Andreas Harbach

Wilhelmine knew what she wanted. She entrusted the design of the opera house interior to Giuseppe Galli-Bibiena, the most outstanding representative of an Italian family of painters and theatre architects, and a court artist to the Saxons in Dresden. His son Carlo remained at the Bayreuth court until the margravine’s death, designing sets for successive performances at the opera house – using extraordinary wooden structures lit from the inside, which took the audience’s breath away with the power of stage illusion. The construction of the Rococo facade of grey sandstone – after a design by the margraves’ court architect Joseph Saint-Pierre – was completed two years after the opening of the building. Performances were regularly given for ten years. Wilhelmine would provide the musicians with fresh scores, arrange the artists on stage and often herself appear in stagings of her operas and Singspiele.

The margravine’s beautiful dream ended with her death in 1758. Her daughter’s beautiful marriage had turned out to be a disaster even before that. Shortly before Wilhelmine’s death Elisabeth – cheated on and kept away from state matters by her husband – had given birth to her only child: a daughter whom Charles did not want and did not love, and who survived for only a year. Complete silence fell over the Margravial Opera House. Ironically, this may have been the reason why the theatre survived centuries almost intact – with the exception of the theft of the curtain, stolen by Napoleon’s soldiers who marched through Bayreuth in 1812 on their way to Russia. Sixty years later the vast, nearly thirty metres deep Baroque stage inspired Richard Wagner, who was working on a design for his own Festspielhaus with the famous double proscenium and the “mystical abyss” of the covered orchestra pit.

I saw the interior of the Opernstrasse theatre, a true jewel in the Hohenzollerns’ crown, for the first time last year – soon after the completion of a thorough renovation of the building, which took nearly six years and cost nearly thirty million euros. No wonder: elements of the decorations were restored centimetre by centimetre, with great care for every detail of the exquisite woodwork, for every flash of light in the gilding, for the deceptive perspective of the illusionistic paintings. At the Margravial Opera House everything is theatre: even when the auditorium is empty and there is no one on stage. The magic of the place began to attract artists already towards the end of the previous century. In the mid-1990s several memorable scenes from Gérard Corbiau’s film Farinelli about the famous Italian castrato were shot here. At more or less the same time the Markgräfliches Opernhaus became the venue of the Easter Festival – with a programme ranging from Bach to Mahler, organised with the Internationale Junge Orchesterakademie and seeking primarily to promote young ambitious musicians.

Martyna Pastuszka. Photo: Andreas Harbach

Yet something continued to be missing: music and drama created during the time of Princess Wilhemine of Prussia, i.e. Baroque opera with all the arsenal of its magic and illusion, which in no other theatre can impress the spectators as much as they do in the setting conjured up by the great Bibienas. In January there came the news awaited not only by music lovers but also “ordinary” residents of Bayreuth – a small town which every year sank into an autumn stupor after the end of the Wagner Festival. Bayreuth Baroque, a new festival was announced to be held in the first half of September under the artistic direction of the Croatian countertenor Max Emanuel Cenčić. The programme – in addition to concerts and recitals by period performance stars – featured a full staging of Nicola Antonio Popora’s Carlo il Calvo directed by Cenčić, who also sang Lottario; and a concert performance of Leonardo Vinci’s dramma per musica, Gismondo, Rè di Polonia, featuring soloists and {oh!} Orkiestra Historyczna conducted by Martyna Pastuszka.

Such a turn of events was not expected even by the biggest fans of the young orchestra from Silesia. Eight years had passed since their first concert, years spent not only painstakingly editing source material and artistically developing the ensemble as a whole as well as each musician separately, but making efforts to bring about a breakthrough in the organisation and financing model of niche cultural projects. Nevertheless, Pastuszka’s orchestra was lucky. In 2015 it managed to establish regular collaboration with the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra, one of the most thriving musical institutions in Poland. Three years later it made its debut at the Chopin and His Europe festival in Warsaw: from that moment, thanks to the Fryderyk Chopin Institute, it has been systematically adding Romantic pieces to its repertoire. It had several encounters that turned out to be providential; among them was the encounter with Łukasz Strusiński, an expert from the Adam Mickiewicz Institute, who from the very beginning accompanied the musicians in their most ambitious project to date – attempt to bring back from obscurity a forgotten opera by Vinci, one of the leading representatives of the Neapolitan school, a rival of Porpora and teacher of Pergolesi. The attempt has been more than successful, as is evidenced by the triumphant march of Gismondo through European concert halls, but also by the award-winning recording for Parnassus Arts, warmly received by the critics. Of course, another man behind all these successes is also Cenčić – the first modern interpreter of the role of Sigismund Augustus and co-producer of the whole project, supported by a veritable army of organisers and sponsors, headed by the Mickiewicz Institute and the Orlen Deutschland GmbH company.

Times are changing. The role of the Florentine Medicis and the Venetian Doges’ Council is now played by commercial companies, which are not always easy to persuade to pump money into a niche orchestra’s venture focused on a little known composer. This makes it even more special that all these benefactors did not back off, when the spectre of the pandemic loomed not only over Gismondo, but also over the entire festival. The epidemic situation in Bavaria had been far from optimistic for months. When the Bayreuther Festspiele and with it a much-publicised new staging of Der Ring des Nibelungen fell victim to the virus, the musical world held its breath. But the determined founders of Bayreuth Baroque closed ranks even more. They made a desperate attempt to organise the event in accordance with the existing sanitary regime and without any cuts to the programme. Decisions hung in the balance almost until the very last moment – including the decision to make all the festival events available online as. Miraculously, it worked. Those who sneered at the “full” house with empty seats in the auditorium, must have looked far from happy to hear that the first Baroque opera celebration at the Markgräfliches Opernhaus attracted as many as 360,000 viewers watching it online.

I had more luck than they did. Not only was I able to hear Gismondo live, but I was also seated on the balcony, right next to the lavish ducal box. The legend has it that the margrave and his wife rarely used it, preferring instead to relish the magic of theatre from the first row of the stalls, right next to the proscenium – yet the mastery of the Bibienas’ architecture is best admired from above, looking into the seemingly infinite depth of the Baroque stage. Sound is reflected from the wooden elements of the interior softly and cleanly, and easily reaches every nook and cranny of the auditorium.

In the foyer. Photo: Andreas Harbach

And this was enough to appreciate even a concert performance of Gismondo, with the {oh!} Orkiestra charming the audience with its trademark rounded sound and excellent understanding among the musicians. The complicated story of honour and love (with the Polish-Lithuanian union in the background), far removed – as is often the case with Neapolitan opera – not just from historical truth but also from any plausibility, unfolded smoothly and lively, also thanks to the soloists, most of whom were already familiar with Vinci’s score. Most, because there were some surprises – the Bashkir soprano Dilyara Idrisova failed to arrive for logistical reasons and was replaced in the role of Judith by Hasnaa Bennani, an otherwise fine singer. But the singer who shone like a jewel in the rest of the female cast was Sophie Junker, a velvety-voiced Cunegonde with an excellent sense of drama and musical prosody. I’m not a fan of Cenčić’s countertenor, but I have to admit that he skilfully created a character of the wise and good-natured King Sigismund. Yuriy Mynenko as Ottone made up for some slight technical shortcomings with the extraordinary beauty of his lyrical male soprano.

Vinci’s opera – fresh, full of unconventional solutions and performed with verve and grace – took the listeners by storm. Given a standing ovation, the musicians thanked the audience with an encore featuring a fragment of the finale. The next concert, presented two days later, is said to have generated even more enthusiasm – a point worthy of note, as the guests from Poland had already returned home. Some German critics hailed Gismondo as the biggest revelation of the festival.

I wished I had seen the entire Bayreuth Baroque. I would love to share the optimism of the organisers, who are already making plans for the next season, trusting that nature itself will overcome the epidemic and if not – that we will vanquish the virus with a vaccine. May their hopes not be in vain. The marriage between the Margravial Opera House and Baroque music is certainly beautiful. May it also be happy every after.

Translated by: Anna Kijak
Original article available at: https://www.tygodnikpowszechny.pl/podroz-w-kraine-uludy-165140

How does it not delight if delight it must?

I am happy to announce that the 3CD release of carefully remastered recordings of Moniuszko’s music – the part of the series Heritage under the label of Anaklasis, launched by PWM Editions – has been just published. This album is absolutely crucial to proper recognition of his oeuvre and worth every single penny. Stay at home and go to the PWM’s online shop: https://pwm.com.pl/en/sklep/publikacja/songs–arias–ouvertures,stanislaw-moniuszko,22188,ksiegarnia.htm. Instead of a teaser, I post my text from the box’ booklet, where I also give some information about the artists involved. Enjoy!


The Vistula-Oder Offensive, mounted by the forces of the 1st Belorussian Front, which also included Polish troops, the 1st Ukrainian Front, and two armies of the Polish Armed Forces in the East, still continued. From 15th January 1945, the advancing forces captured successively such cities as Kielce, Częstochowa, Radom, Warsaw, and Krakow. On the memorable Saturday of 27th January, the Soviet armies liberated the Nazi complex of concentration camps in Auschwitz-Birkenau. Three days earlier, the Red Army made an attempt to encircle Festung Posen (the Poznań Fortress), which was one of the first manoeuvres in the murderous battle for the capital of Greater Poland. The war would last for over three months more.

In the meantime, in the streets of Łódź, which was liberated on 17th January, there immediately appeared handwritten notices about recruitment of musicians for a symphony orchestra. The city emerged nearly intact from the ravages of war. The waterworks functioned normally, the power station supplied electricity. Musicians frantically collected sheet music, tuned their instruments, and assembled makeshift music stands. The orchestra, created nearly from scratch, found shelter at the Powszechny Theatre. Zdzisław Górzyński was appointed head of the Municipal Philharmonic early in February. The Łódź audience knew him from the pre-war period, when the conductors at Łódź Philharmonic included Emil Młynarski, Walerian Bierdiajew, and Grzegorz Fitelberg. At the inaugural concert, the concert master was Bronisława Rotsztat, who miraculously survived from the last transport to Auschwitz. Music life came back to Łódź on 15th June 1945, with the very first measures of ‘Fairy Tale’ Fantastical Overture.

Moniuszko’s music, along with Chopin’s immortal works, was included in the repertoires of all the orchestras revived after the war. Nearly every theatre that was resuscitated or organised anew began its first season with a premiere of Halka or The Haunted Manor. Moniuszko choirs sprang up like mushrooms, even in such improbable places [small towns and villages – translator’s note] as Krapkowice, Mazańcowice, and Czerwionka in Silesia, Bolewice and Plewiska in Greater Poland, Radawnica and Jeżewo in Pomerania. An anonymous journalist reported in June 1948 in “The Voice of Pabianice” that “Moniuszko’s music delights, moves and enchants. Despite its beauty and charm, it is extremely sincere, fresh, simple, and full of feeling. Moniuszko is the singer of the nation’s very soul. He derives his inspiration from the songs and art of the people, which are his source and model. This is why Moniuszko’s music is close to our hearts and dear to us all, because it touches us so, penetrates deep, and dazzles us.”

Moniuszko always stayed a bit on the sidelines. He was an ingenuous man who did not flaunt his political views, and did not feel well in the world of the rich and famous. His music circulated in the form of loose sheets or copies because he himself either did not want to or was unable to put his output in order. He was also not always capable of reaching an agreement with potential publishers. This may be why for many long years he gained more popular-public than critical and musicological acclaim. Possibly for the same reason, he was an easy tool for all kinds of propaganda systems. Following World War I, his music nicely fitted in with the Polish pro-independence rhetoric, whereas after the next war it fell victim to the ideologists of the communist ‘People’s Poland’. As late as in the 1970s, the operatic education of young Poles still began with a ‘trip’ to the theatre to see Halka, and every child knew at least The Distaff and the ‘bachelor vows’ from The Haunted Manor, if not any other pieces. They were reprinted year after year in the course books for obligatory music lessons in primary schools, and conscientiously drummed into the heads of Year Four pupils, regardless of their individual musical predispositions.

Some found this situation uncomfortable but in a way natural. The ‘familiar’ phrases of Moniuszko’s songs and arias are easier to memorise than virtuosic passages from Chopin’s Études. Excerpts from Moniuszko’s most popular operatic libretti functioned in everyday talk as ‘wingéd words’ quoted out of context, while the poems of well-known authors, analysed in class, were inextricably linked with the tunes of his I-must-have-heard-it-somewhere songs. This was largely owing to the choral societies, founded already in the 19th century. But of much greater importance to the popularisation of Moniuszko’s oeuvre was the music record industry.

Andrzej Hiolski. Photo: Grand Theatre, Warsaw, Archive Unit

Thousands of private record collections perished in the war, most of all – the productions of the famous label Syrena-Elektro, but also of the Polish branches of His Master’s Voice, Columbia, and Parlophone. Recordings of Halka as interpreted by Helena Zboińska-Ruszkowska with the orchestra of Warsaw Opera under Artur Rodziński were no longer so easy to access, and in the ruined cities, now undergoing reconstruction, one could no longer hear Eugeniusz Mossakowski singing The Evening Song from a vinyl record. The recordings of overtures and orchestral fragments under the baton of Józef Ozimiński and Bronisław Szulc were likewise quite forgotten. The process of catalogue building had to start from scratch, in the complex circumstances of record companies being nationalised, private ones closing down, as well as artistic decisions being frequently politically motivated and imposed by the state authorities. The present 3CD anthology consists of recordings from the years 1951-1961, the oldest of which were made by ‘Muza’ United Music Industry Factory in Warsaw, while the later ones, after 1956, were already released under the label of ‘Polskie Nagrania’ Public Company. These recordings are documents – fascinating in many respects – of an age of transition, when the old performance schools were gradually disappearing, and a new aesthetic was already in the making, represented by the then young singers and conductors. Some of them later chose quite different career paths, but the interpretations of several of them are part of the strict canon of postwar Moniuszko interpretations.

Józef Ignacy Kraszewski wrote about Moniuszko’s songs in 1844, directly after the publication of the First Songbook for Home Use: “Should everyone in our country come to recognise Mr Moniuszko’s talent, we would no longer envy the Germans for the ditties written by Schubert and Mendelssohn-Bartholdy (…). May the beautiful ladies (…) take pity and prove their taste by welcoming Mr Moniuszko’s songbook and placing it in the company of the said foreign masters, whose only superiority to Mr Moniuszko lies in the fact that they were lucky enough to be born and gain their fame abroad, not here.”

We often take for granted the widespread opinion that the Songbooks were a kind of educational almanacs, and that the songs they contain were meant to be, first and foremost, melodious and ear-catching, while the accompaniment was unsophisticated and the harmonies – plain. That we brush Moniuszko’s songs off is also the composer’s own fault. In the advertisement for the first book, published in the “Petersburg Weekly”, he claimed that “even poorer music, which proves less felicitously made, can be excused if the poetry is excellent.” And yet, in the twelve Songbooks, most of which were published posthumously, one may find not only short strophic songs, but also compositions written with experienced, technically competent singers in mind, in which the text is of overriding importance, the accompaniment calls for a rich piano technique, and the musical language demonstrates strongly individual qualities.

The six songs performed by Maria Kunińska-Opacka and Jerzy Lefeld are relatively late pieces selected from books VIII and IX of the Songbooks, only published as late as 1908 by the Warsaw Music Society (WTM). Nearly each of these miniatures has an interesting story behind it. Song to the Sun is a setting of a poem by Wacław Szymanowski based on motifs from Casimir Delavigne’s tragedy Paria, the same one which also provided the basis for Moniuszko’s opera to a libretto by Jan Chęciński. The text of The Four Seasons was penned by Miron (pen name of Aleksander Michaux), an eminent but sadly forgotten Parnassian poet. Antoni Kolankowski, author of Little Flower, was an acclaimed translator, of, among others, Lermontov’s verse play Masquerade. Rue, to words by the Polish exile Jan Prusinowski, was composed for the outstanding baritone Jan Koehler, soloist of Warsaw Opera and the first performer of the part of Maciej in The Haunted Manor. The text of The Return of Spring comes from the Polish ‘Oriental’ writer Gustaw Zieliński, a representative of the Ukrainian school in the Polish Romanticism, whereas Ophelia’s Song is nothing else but excerpts from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, as translated by Krystyn Ostrowski. Kunińska-Opacka, the excellent performer of these song, boasted a dark, perfectly trained spinto lyric soprano, as well as an intelligent manner of interpretation, supported here by the musical experience of Lefeld, one of 20th-century Poland’s most eminent chamber musicians and accompanist. These performances represent a dazzling musical culture and great musicality, which comes as no surprise if we remember that the singer was also a very well educated and eminently gifted violinist.

Andrzej Hiolski’s nasal and slightly ‘smoky’ baritone is one of the most beautiful and recognisable voices in the history of Polish vocalism. He is accompanied here by Sergiusz Nadgryzowski – Lefeld’s contemporary, a pre-war Warsaw Opera répétiteur and collaborator of the underground Opera Studio under the German occupation; later a pianist at Warsaw Philharmonic and accompanist of the Teatr Wielki soloists in Warsaw. The songs Hiolski performs on this CD come from different periods of Moniuszko’s work. Similarly to Kunińska-Opacka, Hiolski impresses the audience with elegant phrasing and apt interpretations of the texts, which include jewels by first-class poets. Soldier’s Song from Book II of the Songbooks comes from the play Beautiful Woman by Józef Korzeniowski, an eminent Polish Romantic playwright. Do You Know the Land from Book IV sets Adam Mickiewicz’s translation of Goethe’s poem from his didactic novel Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship. O Mother Mine from Book V was penned by Jan Prusinowski; Two Dawns from Book XI is a setting of Teofil Lenartowicz’s poem from the collection The New Little Lyre, published in 1859.

Antonina Kawecka as Halka. Photo: Grand Theatre, Poznań, Archive Unit

The programme of the second CD consists of arias and ensemble scenes from legendary recordings of operas: The Raftsman, Halka, and The Haunted Manor. The performance of The Raftsman – featuring the phenomenal Halina Słonicka (soprano) as Zosia, the golden-voiced tenor Bogdan Paprocki (Franek), and the Warsaw Philharmonic ensembles under the baton of the same Zdzisław Górzyński who took up the direction of Łódź Municipal Philharmonic in February 1945 – can still be considered as in many respects a model interpretation. Most of the excerpts from Halka are selections from a Poznań production of this opera, recorded in 1953 without audience participation. The cast includes the then best singers performing on that stage. Antonina Kawecka, with her dense, dark dramatic soprano, demonstrating a wide volume range, is equally convincing as the hapless highland girl Halka as she was in the complex and technically extremely demanding part of Wagner’s Isolde. Wacław Domieniecki (Jontek), one of the few genuine heroic tenors in postwar Poland, makes a great impression especially with his ease in the top range. Marian Woźniczko (Janusz) captivates the audience with his warm and velvety-soft, wonderfully tinged baritone. The whole is conducted by a pupil of Arthur Nikisch, Walerian Bierdiajew, who gained fame with his immense repertoire and excellent collaboration with the singers-soloists. His Halka juxtaposes lyrical passages with a nearly Wagnerian dramatism, which is constantly present. What makes this grand interpretation successful is largely the perfect choice of soloists.

An interesting complement to this Poznań production is Jontek’s aria from Act IV, recorded eight years later under Jerzy Semkow. Bogdan Paprocki’s interpretation of this role is very different from that of Domieniecki; Paprocki’s Jontek is not merely desperate, but humiliated and helplessly furious.

The Poznań recording of The Haunted Manor was made a year later than that of Halka, also under Bierdiajew and in similar circumstances. Woźniczko as the Sword-Bearer gives a display of the kontuszowy style (representing the Polish nobility), which the older generation unequivocally associates with Moniuszko’s operatic language. The conductor again selected strong, distinctive and expressive voices with excellent breath support. We will enjoy the sonorous, metallic soprano of Barbara Kostrzewska (Hanna), at ease both in the coloraturas and the wide cantilenas; Felicja Kurowiak’s (Jadwiga) dense and warm mezzo, and the full, incredible noble bass voice of Edmund Kossowski (Zbigniew), who would soon afterwards make his mark in Warsaw as Boris in Mussorgsky’s opera. It is the more interesting to compare Kossowski’s voice with the more ‘jovial’ sound of his famous rival Bernard Ładysz, who in 1960 recorded Skołuba’s aria from Act III under Jerzy Semkow. In the splendid aria, or rather a dramatic scene with carillon, we will again hear Bogdan Paprocki, who sang Stefan more than 250 times on the stage and is still considered today as the most convincing interpreter of that role in all the postwar stage history of The Haunted Manor.

Walerian Bierdiajew in 1934. Photo: NAC

Moniuszko’s overtures – one of which, ‘Fairy Tale’ Fantastical Overture, attracting the ear with lively narration, skilful orchestration, and a wealth of expressive contrasts, was conceived as an autonomous composition – have for decades lived their own independent life as concert pieces. Following the premiere of The Raftsman, the reviewer of “News Chronicle” grumbled about Moniuszko “giving us this material [suitable] for a much larger-scale opera, in which the very overture proves that he found it hard to squeeze his music into the one-act form imposed by the librettist.” Whatever the case, this extensive and atmospheric introduction, which develops after a while into a suggestive storm scene, comprises an entire story, which only an orchestra under the baton of a true master can well represent. The overture to Verbum nobile, on the other hand, sparkles with joyful virtuosity, while that for Paria carries the audience away with its wild drama. The Countess opens with a hearty mazur, contrasted with an elegant salon waltz. The Halka overture, in classical sonata form, summarises not so much the action, as the idea of this stage work. The one for The Haunted Manor brings to mind Rossini’s light and virtuosic overtures. As in the case of the other CDs in our collection, the listeners may compare and judge for themselves what suits them best, in this case – among the interpretations of Moniuszko’s orchestral music. Will it be Fitelberg’s characteristic textural sense and the ability to emphasise coloristic qualities? Or the combination of ‘Russian-type’ lyricism with ‘German-type’ care for good construction, typical of Bierdiajew? Or perhaps it will be Krenz’s clockwork precision in every polished detail, which enhances the emotions contained in the music?

Whether Moniuszko was truly a singer of the nation’s soul – is not for me to judge. All I can say is that he touches, penetrates, and dazzles, especially in these old interpretations, which can well become a vast source of inspiration for contemporary performers.

Translated by: Tomasz Zymer

Lovely Music and the Vistula People

I am happy to announce that the first CD from the series Heritage under the label of Anaklasis, launched by PWM Editions, was published at the end of last year. This remastered archival recording of Flis (The Raftsman), one of the lesser-known operas by Moniuszko, is a solid contribution to the discography of Polish music. The CD is available at the PWM’s online shop (https://pwm.com.pl/en/sklep/publikacja/flis,stanislaw-moniuszko,22187,shop.htm). Instead of a teaser, I post my text from the CD booklet, where I explain the whole story and give some information about the artists involved. Enjoy!


No, Moniuszko didn’t like it in Paris at all. Possibly he was worn out by his journey to France via Germany, which took more than a month and abounded in artistic disappointments as well as “draining his pockets thoroughly.” He may also have felt uncomfortable in the busy metropolis, vibrant with life, or he simply couldn’t afford the city’s numerous pleasures. The unbearable heatwave didn’t help, either. Whatever the reasons, he was disgusted, and vented his frustration in a letter to his daughter written in mid-June 1858, where he wrote that the Parisian theatres were “splendid, but very untidily maintained; the foyers are extremely narrow, very much as in the Vilnius dress circle. […] The change of sets makes as much whistling noise as a locomotive […] The singers at Le grand opéra are the worst, but at the Opéra Comique they are exquisite […] the ballet is better in Warsaw. The orchestra and choirs are excellent, but lower standard than in Germany. The sets are dirty because they are worn out. […] All in all, the theatres have not satisfied me at all, and since I arrived in Paris, I only once managed to sit through an entire play.” It was most likely all these circumstances that gave rise to the legend of how the composer hid in a hotel in Rue de Gramont, closed all the shutters, lit the candelabra, set up his portable desk, and completed the score of his new opera The Raftsman, to a libretto by Stanisław Bogusławski, in a mere four days. But in reality, if he indeed wrote anything in Paris, it was no more than a general outline of his ‘one-act piece from the Vistula valley’. That it wasn’t much more becomes evident when we read his later correspondence with his wife, in which he complains that, the more he works on Flis, “the more work appears ahead of him.”

All this work notwithstanding, the opera does bear the mark of haste. Moniuszko was eager to exploit the recent success of his Halka; especially so since General Ignacy Abramowicz, President of Warsaw’s Government Theatres, was planning to entrust the post of opera conductor to Moniuszko and so was impatiently looking forward to more scores. Most problematic for Moniuszko was the libretto, which, despite the great potential of the theme, proved stylistically inconsistent and rather clumsy in terms of literary form, especially if we compare it with Wolski’s masterfully constructed Halka. Stanisław Bogusławski, son (born out of wedlock) of the more famous Wojciech, was a reasonably good comedy writer, a columnist known for his jovial sense of humour, and a solid supporting actor. His experience as a librettist, however, was limited to collaboration with Józef Damse on the latter’s opera The Sea Smuggler after Walter Scott. The composer did his best to cover up the shortcomings of the narrative structure by adding graceful choruses, a number of tuneful, frequently virtuosic arias, and skilfully constructed ensemble scenes. He also prefaced the whole with an atmospheric and brilliantly instrumented overture. The Raftsman, conceived as an unpretentious ‘scene of country life’ (as clearly suggested by the references to folk dances in the choruses “O come young raftsman” and “The rafts sail along the Vistula”), demonstrates surprisingly many affinities with the Italian opera, as well as with the works of Auber, Meyerbeer and Halévy, with which Moniuszko familiarised himself, among others, during his “boring” stay in Paris, whose theatres “did not satisfy him at all.”

All the same, Moniuszko’s one-act opera drew the admiration of the audience on the night of the premiere (24th September 1858) and was received rather favourably by the contemporary critics. “Kurier Warszawski” reported (in issue no. 253) that “the music [was] lovely, some numbers received an encore, and an undying applause continued throughout the spectacle.” What certainly contributed to this success was the composer himself as conductor, as well as perfectly selected soloists: Paulina Rivoli and Julian Dobrski, who had sung the parts of the unfortunate highland girl and of Jontek in the recent Warsaw production of Halka, and now returned as Zosia and Franek. Also excellent was the singing actor Alojzy Żółkowski, portraying the troublesome Warsaw salon hairdresser and barber Jakub – a great comedian and “an extraordinary phenomenon, hitherto unparalleled on any stage,” as Władysław Bogusławski later described him.

The Raftsman became a repertoire staple at Polish opera houses, and was frequently staged together with Verbum nobile on the same night. Two years after World War II came to its close, The Raftsman was also presented in the open air on the river cruise route from Warsaw to Gdynia by the Polish Rivers Opera, consisting of musicians from Cracow Opera and Philharmonic. Its postwar comeback to the stage took place in 1949 at Poznań Opera. The most recent staging, prepared in 2003 by the Szczecin Castle Opera (Opera na Zamku), was the last of the ten postwar productions of the work which, as Moniuszko hoped, would quite “preoccupy the minds” of the audience.

The Raftsman at the Opera Śląska in Bytom (1954). Antoni Majak (Antoni the Fisherman) and Maria Kunińska (Zosia). Photo: Bronisław Stapiński

The archive recording of The Raftsman that we present here, made in 1962, deserves to be recalled first and foremost as a priceless document of the great abilities of Polish opera singers in that era. The enamoured Zosia was sung by Halina Słonicka, who came from the Polish Eastern frontier (she was born in Charniany near Kobryn, now in Belarus), who had taken up secondary music education following her success in the ‘Looking for Young Talents’ competition, dropping her architecture studies at the Warsaw University of Technology. A year later she became a pupil of Magdalena Halfterowa, who remained her tutor until graduation. In 1957, still as a student at Warsaw’s State Higher School of Music, Słonicka was engaged as a singer at Warsaw Opera. An extremely versatile artist, blessed with a warm soprano of beautiful timbre, she demonstrated extraordinary musicality and sense of style. Her interpretation of the famous dumka “Ah! Perhaps amid this storm” delights with the masterful legato, while in duets with Szóstak she displays her impeccable coloratura technique.

Her partner is Bogdan Paprocki as Franek. This perhaps the most outstanding of lirico-spinto tenors in the entire postwar history of Polish opera made his debut still before the war, in a barbershop quartet during an evening show held in April 1939 by cadets from the Zamość Reserve Officer Cadet School. He took singing lessons from, among others, Ignacy Dygas, one of Poland’s best Wagnerian tenors. His professional career began at the Silesian Opera in Bytom, with the role of Alfredo in Verdi’s Traviata. He soon gained fame as a Moniuszko soloist nonpareil, especially with his interpretations of the parts of Jontek in Halka and Stefan in The Haunted Manor. Notably, in the role of Franek he appeared on the stage only once in his life, at the Silesian Opera, virtually directly after the studio recording of The Raftsman. Until an old age Paprocki continued to impress audiences with his brilliantly controlled tenor voice, distinguished by a recognisable golden-tinged timbre and impeccable intonation.

Bogdan Paprocki. Photo: Edward Hartwig

Jakub the Hairdresser sings with the unforgettable, velvety and melancholy baritone of Andrzej Hiolski, considered one of the most beautiful of its kind, not only in Poland. He made his debut during World War II at Cracow’s Stary Theatre as Janusz in Moniuszko’s Halka. Later he was a soloist of the Silesian Opera in Bytom and sang for many years at Warsaw’s Teatr Wielki. He went down in history as the phenomenal Sword Bearer in Moniuszko’s The Haunted Manor, the terrifying Scarpia in Puccini’s Tosca, and the unequalled model of Szymanowski’s King Roger. He won the audiences’ hearts with his extraordinary vocal culture and intelligent interpretations, especially of the song repertoire. Famed for his versatility, he was one of the few opera singers in that period who did not shun contemporary music; this preoccupation bore fruit, among others, in the form of excellent interpretations of parts in Penderecki’s St Luke Passion and The Devils of Loudun.

At the premiere performances of both these latter works, Hiolski shared the stage with Bernard Ładysz, the living legend of Polish vocal art. Ładysz and Hiolski were of the same age and for many years they sang together in Warsaw, where Ładysz is remembered first and foremost for his unsettling Boris Godunov in Mussorgsky’s eponymous opera. Endowed with an extremely strong, dark but warm bass-baritone, in The Raftsman Ładysz gives a very convincing portrayal of the old campaigner Szóstak, most notably – in his exquisite duet with Jakub (“Good sir, why such haste?” / “I’m a salon hairdresser”).

Antoni Majak, who sang the part of Antoni the Fisherman, deserves a separate mention. This now unjustly forgotten bass debuted before the war as a Warsaw Opera soloist. From the early 1950s onward, he successfully directed opera productions on Poland’s best stages. The oldest habitués of the Silesian Opera recall (with much nostalgia) his appearances as Kecal in Smetana’s The Bartered Bride, a role that calls not only for excellent vocal technique, but also for considerable acting skills and a sense of humour.

The cast also includes Zdzisław Nikodem in the minor part of Feliks. This excellent leggiero tenor, a soloist of Warsaw’s Teatr Wielki, also performed from its very beginnings at Warsaw Chamber Opera.

The soloists, Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir are conducted in this studio recording by Zdzisław Górzyński, possibly the most successful interpreter of the composer’s specific style in the history of Moniuszko recordings in Poland. Górzyński was born into a Jewish family that boasted fine musical traditions. His father, Józef Grünberg, played the violin in the orchestra of Johann Strauss the Younger. Górzyński studied conducting with Franz Schalk, the would-be director of Vienna’s Staatsoper. He felt equally at ease in the core operatic repertoire and in operettas by Lehár or Offenbach. His interpretations were full of internal dynamism, wonderfully nuanced in terms of dynamics, rhythms and tempi. He maintained a perfect balance between the soloists and the orchestra, which together formed one living, pulsating organism. The 1965 recording of (excerpts from) Halka under his baton, featuring choice soloists and the ensembles of Warsaw’s Teatr Wielki, still remains unrivalled after all the years. As for his interpretation of The Raftsman, we have rather little to compare it with.

This is a shame since, as Zdzisław Jachimecki reluctantly admitted, “this music has its assets after all.” In Górzyński’s interpretation, those assets become fully manifest.

Translated by: Tomasz Zymer