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“Slavic Heroes”
Operatic excerpts by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: (Yevgeniy Onegin, Iolanta, Mazeppa), Sergei Rachmaninov (Aleko), Bedrich Smetana (Certova stena), Stanislaw Moniuszko (Halka, Straszny Dwór, Verbum Nobile), Antonín Dvorák (Selma sedlák), Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (Sadko), Aleksandr Borodin (Knyaz Igor) & Karol Szymanowski (Król Roger)

Mariusz Kwiecien (Baritone), Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra, Lukasz Borowicz (Conductor)
Recorded at Polish Radio Witold Lutoslawski Concert Hall (September 2009 and January 2011) – 55’
harmonia mundi #HMW 906101 – Booklet with essays and translations in English, French and German

As the liner notes of this disc suggest, some recital programs decide themselves. Likewise, some music reviews write themselves. Well, that may be wishful thinking, but at least there is no critical ambiguity in response to this album. In short, buy this disc. It is one of the finest recital discs in recent memory. If you need more incentive, please read on.

Of the thirteen excerpts on this disc, many were previously unknown to me. Yet the familiar arias from Eugene Onegin, King Roger and Prince Igor, are in outstanding company. The lesser-known pieces from Dvorák and Smetena are wonderful gems, ripe with opportunities for dramatic vocal displays. Through the first seven tracks on the disc, it would seem that “Slavic Lovers” would have been a more apt title, as the archetypal tormented lover seems to be the hallmark of many of the tracks. Yet, thanks to the richness of this music, there is a wonderful buoyancy and freshness to this recital. It never bogs down. The scenes compliment each other brilliantly well and the 55-minute recital finishes in the blink of an eye.

Baritone Mariusz Kwiecien possesses a robust, yet smoky voice. Some may compare his burnished hue to that of another famous Eugene Onegin, Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky, but Kwiecien’s has a bit more lyrical ease and brightness to it. From the two Onegin excerpts, it is clear why this role is one of his Kwiecien’s most popular. Kwiecien’s Eugene is beguiling and youthful, but powerfully sung. There is ample heft on display in the third act party scene aria. His heroic baritone extension is on magnificent display in the Mazeppa and Sadko arias, where Kwiecien’s high A-flats ring out brightly and breathtakingly. To his credit, however, his voice is wonderfully versatile and colorful when singing tenderly, as in the opening to theAleko aria. Kwiecien’s sensitivity and substance of sound in the passaggio is impressive. Such technique makes this disc a joy to listen to.

Polish composer Stanislaw Moniuszko’s fame outside of his homeland is limited, but it is easy to see why he is so revered: Moniuszko’s dramatic and musical gifts are considerable. The first aria, from Halka, begins with a conflicted recitative that gives way to a brief tormented aria, passionately delivered by Kwiecien. “Miecznik’s aria” from the same composer’s The Haunted Manor is a wonderful rondo of an aria, that provides a fine segue to the final arias of the disc. In it, the Swordbearer sings of the qualities he’s looking for in a son-in-law, providing some levity, but also showcasing the versatility of Kwiecien’s instrument.

Still, this disc is titled “Slavic heroes” and the two most heroic roles are saved for the conclusion. Kwiecien dispatches the extensive monologue from Prince Igor with deft authority. As the tormented ruler, his dramatic gifts are substantial, and Kwiecien conjures optimistic visions of a formidable Iago in the near future. The final scene from King Roger closes the disc in triumphant fashion as the music soars upward. It is an impressive encapsulation of Kwiecien’s vocal and dramatic skills. The Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of Lukasz Borowicz, provide first class accompaniment. They are recorded in a wonderfully natural sound by harmonia mundi’s brilliant team. I am more than happy to highly recommend this recording as one of the most enjoyable recitals I have heard in recent memory and eagerly await the next offering from this brilliant artist.

Matthew Richard Martinez




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