Page 14, 12th February 2010

12th February 2010
Page 14
Page 14, 12th February 2010 — This white elephant has a weary tread

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Locations: Warsaw


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This white elephant has a weary tread

MUSIC REVIEW Michael White Maciejewski Requiem


Music history runs heavy with white elephants: gargantuan pieces that composers write with an obsessive passion only to have them done once, maybe twice, and then shelved as impracticable, unfashionable, or whatever else it takes to keep a score out of circulation.

Roman Maciejewski’s Requiem is such a piece. And I doubt if many in the audience for its British premiere at Westminster Cathedral last week had heard it before – even though half of them seemed to be from Poland, where Maciejewski has some enduring reputation as a creative force.

Born in Germany in 1910, he led a nomadic existence between Poland, Sweden, Scotland, America until his death in 1998, making a fairly modest living as a composer, conductor and pianist. But as the years passed he became, in not unconnected succession, ill, reclusive, and devout. And it was in 1945, troubled by his own problems and those of the world in the immediate aftermath of war, that he began to write the Requiem: a piece that grew, and grew, in scale as he continued to work at it for the next 14 years.

By the late 1950s it was already pushing two and a half hours duration and he’d only got as far as the Dies Irae – which in most Requiem settings is about half way. Wisely, he then decided to leave it there, jettisoning the Offertory, Sanctus, Agnus Dei and Communion. And it was in this truncated but still monumental form (requiring a vast orchestra of quadruple wind, double everything else, harps, pianos, several hundred voices and four soloists) that the piece was premiered in Warsaw in 1960. To dismal reviews.

The music had spent so long fermenting in Maciejewski’s mind that by the time it reached performance it seemed a stylistic dinosaur. Warsaw in the 1960s was a hotbed of the avant-garde. This Requiem was anything but. So it flopped, grandly. And apart from an American outing in the 1970s, that was it – until Westminster Cathedral last week when it was resurrected by the BBCSO and Chorus as part of Polska: a Polish cultural initiative running at the moment in the UK.

One thing I can say for it is that the performance was an event. The cathedral was packed. The soloists and conductor (Michal Dworzynski) were flown in from Poland to lend authenticity. And the cultural elite were out in force. So I wish I could also say the Requiem proved itself a forgotten masterpiece. But I can’t.

Stylistic conservatism wasn’t the problem (after 50 years such things don’t register so jarringly). Nor was the length, which had been trimmed to two hours. The problem was simply a sad lack of vividly imagined musical ideas or energy that left the piece, for all its vastness, without impact.

That the writing referenced so many other composers – Poulenc, Stravinsky, Janaček, Verdi, even Herbert Howells in the Gradual – was presumably deliberate. Maciejewski said his objective was a synthesis of musical languages that would make the piece universally accessible as a statement of world unity and peace (etc etc) so I daresay he meant these references to function like aural landmarks, welcoming the stranger in.

But in the process he failed to avoid the obvious. It’s music that does exactly what you expect – albeit in an unexpectedly long-winded way. Much of the writing comes with a slow, wearisome tread and unvaried regularity of beat. And the attempt at a jauntier pulse in the fugal Kyrie falls limp.

It gives me no pleasure to be negative about this piece because it was clearly written with conviction and a sincerity that shines through from time to time. It has its moving moments; and they certainly moved the four soloists, two of whom (a silken soprano called Iwona Hossa and a truly wonderful bass-baritone called Tomasz Konieczny) made the whole thing almost worthwhile.

But the inescapable fact lingering in my mind was that this music is more or less contemporary with Britten’s War Requiem, which was written with not dissimilar intentions as a universalist, postwar plea for peace. And to think of these two scores side by side is to realise what a very great work Britten’s is; while Maciejewski’s, alas, is not.

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