Posted on October 22nd, 2010

Westminster Cathedral

It’s quite a story: the exiled Polish composer Roman Maciejewski tenaciously pursuing his dream to complete his “anti-war” Requiem over 15 years and across several countries and only now, a decade after his death, gathering the faithful in Westminster Cathedral during Polska! Year to celebrate its UK Premiere.

I wish I could reveal a happy ending to the story and pretend that the work’s meandering journey to completion had not in any way compromised its coherence – but the reality is rather different and if Maciejewski hoped that during this long gestation his own voice would finally emerge loud and clear, he was sadly wrong. Where is he in this worthy endeavour? The overriding impression left by Missa pro defunctis is the lack of a clearly defined voice.

Many influences manifest themselves: in the Introitus seraphic violins and harps invoke a Faure-like sweetness; the Kyrie is not so much a plea as a spirited request with bouncy counterpoint suggesting the Sanctus of Verdi’s Requiem; the presence of pianos points to Stravinsky and indeed the primitivism of his roaring bass-tuba and stuttering string led Dies Irae plucks a key rhythm and clarinet motif straight out of The Rite of Spring. One could go on.

It’s interesting that unlike Britten in his War Requiem there is nothing in the body of the work, no additional texts, to point up its pacifist message – just a dedication “To the Victims of Human Ignorance” and an epigraph, in Latin, of the words “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” How much more potent it might have been to have set those words – perhaps even at the very top of the piece?

As it is, the focus is on Maciejewski’s protracted setting of the Dies Irae, the “Day of Wrath” – and when I say protracted I mean protracted. The word setting is laborious and long-winded with only flashes of that exotically melismatic writing so beloved of his cherished compatriot Szymanowski. The harmonic language is by and large designed to throw a healing consonant light over everything and to that end a majestic 8-part “Amen” crowns the proceedings with a D-major chord that seems to arrive from nowhere but is welcome nonetheless.

Doubtless the BBC Radio 3 broadcast at 2pm on Tuesday 2nd March will reveal more of the score’s inner workings than a cathedral setting ever can – but at least the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Choral forces under Michal Dworzynski can console themselves at having gone some way towards honouring a forgotten composer’s memory.

Posted in Reviews


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