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2011 in Polish Music - Year in Review

Jagoda Dziadek
Scene from "Maria Curie" Opera

The past year demonstrated the growing significance of Polish music on the international market while tough times for the industry brought on new editions of past hits at the cost of contemporary artists

The biggest success came for Aleksandra Kurzak, the first Polish vocalist who signed a long-term contract with a major international label. Her first production with Decca is "Gioia!", an album for which Kurzak received raving and well-deserved reviews. With joy (in Italian gioia), lightness and elegance she sang ten popular arias, thus drawing an interesting artistic self-portrait. Special recognition came for her virtuoso rendition of  "The Haunted Manor" an aria presented as an additional, eleventh piece of the album which made Moniuszko the master of the opera bel canto.

The British Harmonia Mundi has granted Mariusz Kwiecień guardianship of a smaller yet very prestigious company which gives artists a great deal of independence. The recorded solo debut of the Polish baritone - "Slavic Heroes" - created an opportunity to present pieces of less known operas. And even though the chief composition is "Eugene Oniegin" by Tchaikovsky, it is Stanisław Moniuszko whose presence is dominant on the album. For the first time ever fragment of his "Verbum nobile" - the aria of Stanisław, a Polonaise of the Sword-bearer of "The Haunted Manor" as well as the aria of Janusz in "Halka" were recorded as part of the project. The album is crowned by the joyous hymn at the arrival of the morning sun from Szymanowski’s "King Roger". It is an important piece for Mariusz Kwiecień as his performance of the role at the Teatro Real in Madrid was named the best role of the 2011 opera season in Spain.

For over 10 years Krystian Zimerman negotiated with the Deutsche Grammophon about publishing an album of Grażyna Bacewicz chamber music. The pianist has been promoting her music for a long time and the Second Piano Sonata is often the focal point of his recitals. The audience is presented with two brilliantly recorded quintets written by Grażyna Bacewicz, in which Krystian Zimerman is accompanied by the violinists Kaja Danczowska and Agata Szymczewska, viola player Ryszard Groblewski and cellist Rafał Kwiatkowski.

Polish orchestras have also kept active. The 22-year-old Russian opera sensation Julia Lezhneva was accompanied by Sinfonia Varsovia under conductor Marc Minkowski on her album "Naive". Antoni Wit together with the National Philharmonic Orchestra has enriched his discography with works recorded under the label NAXOS. A new addition in the returning series of music by Krzysztof Penderecki is a viola concerto and a Second Cello Concerto recorded by solo artists from Russia: Grigori Zhislin and Tatjana Vassiljeva. Two albums with the music of Mieczysław Karłowicz. Antoni Wit recorded a symphony in E minor titled "Rebirth" and a violin concerto with the Russian violinist Ilya Kaler. The label NAXOS has published "Glagolitic Mass" by the Czech composer and folklorist Leoš Janaček.

American classical music writer and critic David Hurwitz wrote:

Truth be told, there are few organizations better equipped to deliver satisfying performances of large choral works than Antoni Wit and his Warsaw forces. The choir is excellent, top to bottom; likewise, the orchestra.
 It’s also impossible not to mention Jaroslaw Malanowicz’s scorcher of an organ solo, and a conclusion that effectively lets the colorful weirdness of Janáček’s brass writing register without exaggeration. It’s a wonderful performance, plain and simple.

2011 brought a Europe-wide acclaim for the albums recorded by the Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Łukasz Borowicz. The musicians participated in the recording sessions of Mariusz Kwiecień, and have also issued their own collections. The first one contains works of the Warsaw-born Szymon Laks and Karl Rathaus who was born in Tarnopol (EDA Records). Their second album with the violin concertos by Grażyna Bacewicz was published by the British label Chandos. German cpo continues its series dedicated to Andrzej Panufnik, the 2011 album contains, interalia, "Autumn Music" and "Sinfonia Mistica" suggested for the compilation by Łukasz Borowicz. Swedish Sterling published Zygmunt Noskowski’s Symphony No. 2 in C minor, "Elegiac" and "Moments Melodiques" recorded by the Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Łukasz Borowicz.


Paweł Mykietyn

The number one release in Poland was undoubtedly the edition of "St. Mark Passion" by Paweł Mykietyn. The renowned composer reached to the great tradition but, unlike Bach or Penderecki, has written a chamber style "Passion". Mykietyn built a construction of simple, raw elements such as single repeating sounds of saxophones, tuba, percussion and string instruments or separate voices of a small choir. He has given the events an opposite course: from a piercing scream of the dying Jesus to his silent night capture. The lector is Pontius Pilate (Maciej Stuhr), and the role of Christ was presented to the female mezzo soprano (sensational Urszula Kryger). Mykietyn’s "Passion" was published by the National Audiovisual Institute which also promotes a collection of three DVD or Blue-Ray discs entitled "Made in Poland". The collection presents a recording of concerts of the Sacrum Profanum festival in Kraków in 2010, and at the same time it is a digest of the contemporary Polish music starting with the classics: Witold Lutosławski, Kazimierz Serocki, Krzysztof Penderecki, Henryk Mikołaj Górecki, through the representative of the so-called middle generation - Paweł Szymański, all the way to the younger generation and its ambassadors Paweł Mykietyn and Agata Zubel.

Aleksandra Kurzak began her 2011 with a recital at the Milan’s La Scala or her highly acclaimed performance in "The Barber of Seville" at London’s Covent Garden, and later debuted at the festival in Verona, in Los Angeles ("Cosi fan tutte") and at the National Opera in Warsaw where, for the first time, the Polish audience witnessed her in "Lucia di Lammermoor".
Piotr Beczała and Mariusz Kwiecień became regulars at New York’s Metropolitan Opera. The Polish tenor won the hearts of audiences with his role of Romeo, and during his tour in Japan he received standing ovations as Rudolf in Puccini’s "La Bohème". Mariusz Kwiecień’s sudden back injury prevented him from appearing in the premiere of "Don Giovanni", produced for him in October, but he managed to perform this opera for several weeks in New York and the show was broadcast to nearly 50 countries all over the globe.

Fairytale in Munich

Mariusz Treliński moved his older production of "Onegin" to Venice and Krzysztof Warlikowski adapted "King Roger" for Madrid after it was presented to the audiences of the Opera Bastille in Paris. A great success came for Michał Znaniecki who, in Bilbao, showed his "Eugene Onegin". This staging, coproduced wht the Kraków Opera and Grand Theatre in Poznań, was named the best opera performance of the Spanish opera season.
 2011 was also an important year for Grzegorz Jarzyna. In Munich’s Staatsoper the director combined Ravel’s "The Child and the Spells" and the rarely played "The Dwarf" by the Austrian composer Alexander Zemlinsky. Jarzyna found a new concept for these two different pieces and created a smart theatre play. He begins the story in the real world to, using Ravel’s 'spells', lead the viewer into the fairyland but then, in the finale, reality sets back in. In Zemlinsky’s libretto, unaware of his physical deformity, the dwarf becomes infatuated with the Infanta, singing her a song of love and imagining himself as a brave knight. When left on his own, he accidentally uncovers a mirror and sees his own reflection for the first time. In great agitation, he tries to obtain a kiss from the Infanta, but she spurns this, telling him he is a monster. His heart broken, he dies clutching the white rose given to him earlier by the Infanta as she rejoins the party. In Jarzyna’s adaptation the main character is in fact a handsome man, as the director wanted to show the audience that anybody who dreams of pure, unselfish love is nowadays seen as a peculiar dwarf. Thus this 90 year old tale has gained a new, contemporary and not fairy-like moral.

"Maria" invades Ireland

The title of the music discovery of the year should go to Roman Statkowski's "Maria". Forgotten and neglected in Poland, this 1903 opera was brought to stage, with the support of the Adam Mickiewicz Institute, of the Wexford Festival Opera in Ireland. "Maria", based on a novel of the same name by Antoni Malczewski, is considered a masterpiece of Polish Romanticism. It tells the tale of a young noble woman who marries above her station, and so incurs the wrath of her husband's family, who plot revenge. Michael Gieleta, British director born in Poland found a new way of showing "Maria" and transferred the plot to the times of communism (People's Republic of Poland). The arrogant governor becomes a communist general who tells his superior to kidnap his daughter in law and in case of trouble to kill her. Maria is a daughter of a Solidarity (Polish trade union) activist and a leader of a worker protest. He is joined by the Governor’s son shown by Gieleta as a revolutionary student. During the overture the black and white photos of Polish streets in the winter of 1982 draw a moving and dark picture: empty store shelves, people waiting for buses in the cold, military patrols. And although Poles might be irritated by this literal take (opera is an art of metaphor), critics and managers from outside of Poland raved about this touching performance. Praise came also for Statkowski’s music thanks to the efforts of Tomasz Tokarczyk who conducted the orchestra. The orchestration is rich and its dark atmosphere starts at the overture, then appears at the mighty sounding introduction to the II act and the intense final scene. The play is performed without the opera pathos which is difficult to avoid in the moments of the noble characters’ death.

Inaugural festivities for the Polish EU Presidency were topped by the premiere of Karol Szymanowski’s magnum opus "King Roger" at the Grand Theatre - National Opera House on the evening of July 1. Staged by the British opera director David Pountney, the production breathed new life into the early 20th century score
David Pountney's production originally premiered at the annual festival in Bregenz in July 2009, also to a great deal of acclaim. Polish director Krzysztof Warlikowski also brought his own production of "King Roger" across Europe between 2009 and 2011, most recently taking the stage at Madrid's Teatro Real last spring.
According to Pountney, the score's "musical richness results from Szymanowski's fascination with Byzantine architecture, its richness and ornamentation".

Pountney has noted that when directing opera works he strives for stage design to never rival the music. "To avoid competing with Szymanowski’s rich and lively music, we chose a very toned-down and calm artistic language for the performance". According to the director, the most important characteristics of the whole work and of the set design, arranged by Raimund Bauer, is ambiguity, hidden meanings and enigmatic nature. "The opera's ending is particularly mysterious. In fact, everyone may interpret it in a different way", he remarks.

"King Roger’s" music accompanied the whole presidency as it was brought to the stages of Theatre La Monnaie in Brussels (September) and its European tour finale in Kiev (December). The Adam Mickiewicz Institute co-organised the concerts but its biggest effort and input of the presidency was the I, Culture Orchestra project. It became an example of what the so-called Eastern Partnership could be and what real goals it could achieve in the realm of culture. The I, Culture Orchestra consists of 120 young musicians from Poland, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. The guest conductor became the legendary Sir Neville Marriner, and the artistic director - Paweł Kotla. The I,CULTURE Orchestra launched its tour with a concert on the 24th of August at the Polish Baltic Philharmonic in Gdańsk, conducted by Kotla. It has performed in some of the best concert halls: Berliner Philahrmonie, Teatro Real in Madrid, Royal Albert Hall in London or Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels, and was very well received everywhere it went.

One of the main musical events in Poland was another edition of the international Henryk Wieniawski Violin Competition. It is a competition for violinists up to age 30 that takes place every five years in Poznań, in honor of the virtuoso and composer Henryk Wieniawski and the oldest violin competition in the world. The Henryk Wieniawski Musical Society of Poznań rejuvenated and revolutionised the competition placing a 37 year old Russian violinist Maxim Vengerov as the chairman of the jury. In the preselections he has listened to all of the aspiring violinists. He also founded an additional award for one of the laureates - 12 private lessons with him which is worth not less than 30 000 euro. Vengerov had a great impact on the obstacles-filled programme of the competition. Its tricky path led from Bach’s solo compositions, through great sonatas, Mozart played with a chamber orchestra and the finale of two violin concertos, on of them written by the virtuoso Wieniawski. The rivalry reached a very high level but it was the 27 year old Soyoung Yoon from Korea who turned out to be unsurpassable. She was the audience’s favourite from the very beginning.

Old and New Penderecki

One of the most excellent guests of the Polish concert scene was 75-year-old Steve Reich, who was invited to Kraków during the September Sacrum Profanum festival. He appeared in several concerts accompanied on stage by the Radiohead guitarist, Jonny Greenwood, Aphex Twin, Adrian Utley of Portishead, Tom Verlain of Television and Leszek Możdżer.

The Warsaw Autumn festival was frequented by many excellent composers. There was a special music marathon devoted to the master of twentieth-century avant-garde Karlhenz Stockhausen, but most impressive was saved from oblivion, the shocking "Death Brigade" by Krzysztof Penderecki. Hardly anyone remembers this piece. It premiered in 1964 and was met with such crushing reviews for its brutal naturalism that it was soon forgotten. In his creative process Penderecki used the memories of Leo Weliczker, who worked in the Sonderkommando SS removing traces of Nazi crimes against Jews in the Lviv area. The text recorded by Tadeusz Łomnicki was electronically modified by Penderecki: he added sound effects as well as orchestral and remastered music. But it’s the word that’s key here, and the sound perfectly emphasises it, heightens the mood, and has its own genuine artistic value all at the same time.

Krzysztof Penderecki also introduced a new piece "A sea of dreams did breathe on me... Songs of reverie and nostalgia". Its premiere in January of 2011 officially closed the ceremonial Chopin Year. The composer selected 22 poems of Polish writers, employed a massive ensemble (three soloists, choir and orchestra). The singers are the most important element of Pederecki’s composition. Their tales of a magic garden, secrets of the night and the motherland seen from afar and remembered with pain. Commissioned by the National Audiovisual Institute was Paweł Mykietyn’s the Third Symphony and by Adam Mickiewicz Institute Jan A. P. Kaczmarek’s "Jankiel’s Concert". The contemporary music’s significance is also growing in theatre. The Baltic Oper has prepared the anniversary premiere of "Madame Curie" by Elżbieta Sikora, shown also in Paris and Poznań’s Teatr Wielki ran an interesting chamber opera "Ophelia" written by a gifted 30 year old Tomasz Praszczałek-Prasqual.
Opera Invasion
. A play of the new generation was presented at the National Opera by the German choreographer Sasha Waltz, who used "Matsukaze", an opera written by a Japanese who settled in Germany, Toshio Hosokawa. It was the most spectacular performance of the year, the story straight from the Noh theater, taking place in a daydream with two sisters so in love with the same man, that even after death they cannot be free from him. In this play Sasha Waltz beautifully integrated dance, singing, music, theater and visual arts.

Shostakovich’s "Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District" proved to be an important staging , thanks to which Polish viewers finally had a chance to see one of the most important operas of the twentieth century, delightfully arranged by Gabriel Chmura (Grand Theatre in Poznań, directed by Marcelo Lombardero).

The most talked about opera event was Treliński’s premiere of "Turandot" at the Polish National Opera in Warsaw. Mariusz Treliński distances himself from the convention of an exotic tale, as Puccini’s last piece of work is always treated. Instead he gives the audience a full review of all the newest tricks that the contemporary European theatre feeds on. So he shows fascination with the false trumpery of pop culture, provocative eroticism, to astonish with modesty in the second half of the performance. When Princess Turandot asks her tree riddles to the infatuated Kalaf, the audience becomes witness to some masterly directed subtle yet passionate psychological game.

When it comes to the new popular Polish music there is a good number of bands and solo artists that truly count on the international scene. One of the most original and extemporaneous Polish jazz bands appearedat the Parisian Jazzycolors Festival in November.

Pink Freud is a jazz band founded in Gdańsk in 1998 by Wojtek Mazolewski. The ensemble has since become a strong force in the Polish music market. It has built its own niche on the ground of new jazz with a punk twist, remaining stylistically soul-searching through the years. The band features Wojtek Mazolewski (bass), Adam Baron (trumpet), Tomek Duda (saxophone) Rafał Klimczuk (drums).

Pink Freud began with rhythmic trance, quite like Łoskot or other groups of the Yass scene, but with time became interested in the fusion of jazz and electronic sounds. Extemporaneous, unexpected and energetic performances is their forte. The group has contributed to a generational change on the Polish jazz scene and to opening the publishing market to the power of independent music. This formation has redefined jazz composing for the needs of a modern, discriminating public, blending the spirit of Pink Floyd's progressive experimentalism with the introspective pursuits of Dr. Freud.

On the 4th of December Poland's most vibrant indie-pop star, together with her band, took the stage at London's Cargo in Shoreditch. Known for her unique brand of "folk power with punk energy", Monika Brodka is one of the most acclaimed young Polish recording artists, brandishing success on all fronts - gold records, critical praise and industry awards. The key to her success is her fresh, experimental approach that pushes the envelope on commercial pop without alienating the masses. Her style has made her a fashion icon cited by all the major magazines. She started out as a typical 'Idol' winner, bringing out a fun debut album. Her style has matured over the years, with braver beats woven between folk-inspired and rock vocals. Her third album "Granda" scored Brodka eight nominations - and three wins - at the 2011 Fryderyki Awards, Poland's answer to the Grammy's. Brodka was nominated for this year's MTV European Music Awards.

Author: Jacek Marczyński. Translated by Agnieszka Jagoda Dziadek.

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