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 Recording of the Week  Mariusz Kwiecień

When I first heard a snippet from this disc last autumn, at a Harmonia Mundi presentation at the Wigmore Hall, a real frisson of excitement rippled through the room of slightly sluggish, post-lunch classical music retailers and press: who was this searing, onyx-toned baritone and what was this (Russian Romantic? Czech?) music he was singing with such blazing conviction?

Mariusz Kwiecień
Mariusz Kwiecień

When the singer’s name was eventually revealed, I was convinced that the ‘debut solo recording’ tag must be some mistake: acclaimed as Onegin, Enrico and Mozart’s Count and Giovanni, the glamorous Mr Mariusz Kwiecień has been cutting such a dash on all the very best international stages over the past few years that I felt sure he must have been snapped up by a major label by now. A quick bit of research, however, confirmed that his appearances on recital discs to date have been limited to a few tracks on a Naxos disc of opera arias (8557309), a shared Chopin recital (NIFCCD016) and some tellingly dramatic cameos on other singers’ discs, so I awaited the full programme with much interest.

The finished article found its way to me just before Christmas, and when I first listened to the opening track (Onegin’s brusquely kind, yet chilly rejection of the young Tatyana) I must confess I was a little underwhelmed. In comparison to the full-throated and vibrantly committed singing which had so seized my attention at the preview, the singer here seemed curiously detached, almost mechanical in his delivery. Predictably, I was kicking myself by the end of the aria: the deliberately dispassionate opening is just one of Kwiecień’s bold dramatic choices, and it soon becomes apparent that underneath the apathetic veneer this is an Onegin who is seething with repressed desires and conflicts (listen to his fervent, ambiguous promise of ‘a brother’s love – or perhaps more than that!’ and you’ll see what I mean).

With the exception of the two chunks from Onegin and perhaps the cavatina from Aleko, none of these arias are exactly familiar territory outside their native countries, and much of the attraction of this fine recital stems from the unusual repertoire choices. As conductor Lukasz Borowicz points out in the booklet note, “the whole baritone world is here, reflected through a Slavic lens”. The distinctively Slavic melancholy (or ‘zal’, as Borowicz terms it) which prevails is tempered by two rapturous, soaring love songs from Iolanta and Mazeppa (hugely memorable tunes both, even on one hearing) and polonaises from Moniusko’s comedies Verbum Nobile and The Haunted Manor. The ‘heroes’ are a well-differentiated bunch, ranging from weathered warriors (Igor, Mazeppa) through urbane cads (Onegin, Janusz in Halka and the Prince in The Cunning Peasant) and culminating in the enlightened visionary King Roger, whose transcendent Hymn to Apollo brings the recital to an ecstatic close.

If Kwiecień’s robust delivery of the various set-piece arias make an immediate impact (you can easily imagine him stopping the show in the self-contained songs from Sadko and The Cunning Peasant), he is also no slouch when it comes to psychological subtlety, and in the long term it’s the more substantial monologues which stay in the mind after several hearings. Try his world-weary, despondent Prince Igor, moving from resignation and self-loathing to frustration and anger as he reflects on his defeat in battle. His signature role, Onegin, needs little further recommendation: the two extracts here whetted my appetite enough for me to seek out his complete performance of the role at the Bolshoi on DVD (BAC046), and I’m sure that many of you will be similarly moved to give it a try on the basis of the extracts here!

Caveats? Well, perhaps the first half of the programme is a little heavy on brooding gloom: the arias from Aleko, The Devil’s Wall and Halka are all real gems, but they do make for a rather lugubrious fifteen minutes when heard back-to-back. Kwiecień’s pronounced, rather fast vibrato may not be to all tastes – there’s a distinct beat in the voice here and there, particularly in the upper-middle – but for the most part it intensifies rather than undermines the dramatic thrust of the music.

The fine playing of the Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra plays no small part in showcasing both singer and repertoire: they’re glassily brilliant in the glittering, callous play-out to Onegin’s agonising epiphany at the ball, bleak and foreboding in the Aleko extract and splendidly rumbustious in the two polonaises. It’s all left me hungry to explore more of this neglected music, and I’ll wager you’ll feel much the same after giving this disc a whirl!

Mariusz Kwiecień: Slavic Heroes

Mariusz Kwiecień (baritone), Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra, Lukasz Borowicz

Available Formats: CD, MP3, CD Quality FLAC