[18 March 2012]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Polish opera singer Mariusz Kwiecien became a star of the classical world the old-fashioned way: singing in front of audiences and impressing them. He didn’t get to where he is with the aid of some Poland’s Got Talent show where your audition alone might get you a recording contract. He has walked the talk, or rather, acted the part in high profile performances of The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni. Now that he’s paid his dues on the Mozart circuit, Kwiecien is now eager to shine the spotlight on the men who launched his affinity for the art of the aria. Salvic Heroes delivers what it promises, the operatic works of Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov, Smetana, Dvorak, Rimsky-Korsakov, Moniuszko, Borodin, and Szymanowski.
If I were to ask you to associate a composer’s name with the opera medium, chances are you will think of many others before arriving at one of the more notable names above (Smetana will always be tethered to The Bartered Bride). Conversely, if I were to ask you what compositions immediately come to mind when I drop names like Rachmaninov, Dvorak, Rimsky-Korsakov and Tchaikovsky, chances are they won’t be opera related. If you’re like me, you’ll think of piano concertos, ballets, new worlds, and bumblebees. But “Flight of the Bumblebee” was written as interlude for Rimsky-Kosakov’s The Tale of Tsar Saltan; it just happened to take on an orchestral life of its own within the last 100 years or so. For the classically educated, the link between opera and Tchaikovsky is a short one. Whether or not Mariusz Kwiecien wanted to take the classical music layperson to school with Slavic Heroes is probably not the point. Instead, it’s more of a love letter to one’s first love.
It all starts with a movement from Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin titled “You Wrote to Me…Had I Wished to be Bound by Domestic Life”. This opera doesn’t make a return until track ten with “Can It Be the same Tatyana?” Their placement on the CD is likely deliberate, forming an arch similar to what the dynamic change of perspective that protagonist goes through. One other Tchaikovsky opera featured here is Mazeppa” with an aria called “O Mariya, Mariya!” Things register higher on the romantic meter for this one since the opera’s story revolves around many themes that can upheave a central character and then some. Iolanta, an opera written within the last year or so of Tchaikovsky’s death, gets wordy representation on “Who Can Compare with Mathilde?” Sergey Rachmaninov’s Aleko is highlighted by “How Tenderly She Caressed,” a six-minute slice of bi-polar romance that accurately reflects then bizarrely betrays its title. Rimsky-Korsakov gets slighty less CD time to make an impression with “Gorod kamennyi, gorodam vsem mat?” from Sadko. From Antonin Dvorak it’s “Prince’s Aria” from The Cunning Peasant while Smetana’s The Devil’s Wall provides “Jen Jediana.”
Stanislaw Moniuszko, a name that has less household value in the west, has three tracks going for him on the album. The arias here are culled from Halka, The Haunted Manor, and The World of a Nobleman. Being Poland’s answer to the busy scene in Austria, Moniuszko can be seen as Kwiecien’s homeland hero. Not only did he write three arias on Slavic Heroes, he was also a principle conductor of an opera company in Warsaw. Karol Szymanowski, another treasure of Poland, wrote King Roger in the early 20th century, dooming it to obscurity for anyone standing on the outside of modern eastern-European opera. Still, Mariusz Kwiecien gives the opera’s final movement, “Final Scene/Hymn to Apollo,” a special spot on the album: dead last. It’s a thundering display of drama, on part of both Kwiecien and the Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra. This just leaves Russian composer Aleksandr Borodin, author of Prince Igor and what is the longest aria on the album; “No Sleep, No Rest.”
As you can see, a great deal of evaluating Slavic Heroes is in providing context. Mariusz Kwiecien’s sonorous baritone will likely cement his reputation as a great vocalist just as the voices of those who came before him. The professionalism of both Kwiecien and the Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra proving that Hamonia Mundi never tries to meet their listeners just halfway.