Who Was Roman Palester?

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WP 2019 - 2PALESTER: The Wedding Cake.1 3 Poems by Czesław Miłosz.2 Letters to Mother3 / 2Iwona Hossa, sop; 3Szymon Komosa, bar; 1Women’s Choir of the Karol Szymanowski Philharmonic, Krakow; Beethoven Academy Orch.; Błaźej Wincenty Kozlowski, cond / RecArt 0025

Every year now, it seems I discover more interesting composers I’ve never heard of before. Roman Palester (1907-1989) is the latest.

He would clearly never fit in with today’s Democratic Socialists. For one thing, he was well read and a brilliant, independent thinker. Today’s Democratic Socialists don’t think at all; indeed, they are trained by their teachers not to think but merely to react emotionally. For another, he was an avowed opponent of National Socialism and Communism, doing regular programs for Radio Free Europe. Indeed, his decision to leave his homeland in 1950 due to their being part of the Soviet Union made him persona non grata in Poland, banned as both a man and an artist. He was quite willing to be outside the mainstream of his time because to him, it mattered to be free and live in a country that was not Socialist or Communist.

Pay heed, Socialism-loving millennials. This could be your future as well if you persist in trying to turn the U.S. into a Little Soviet Union, which is what you are doing.

The three works on this CD were written in his full maturity as a composer, The Wedding Cake in 1942, Poems of Czesław Miłosz in 1973-77 and Letters to Mother in 1984-87. The first of these is clearly influenced by Stravinsky, interwoven with a discovery of “Old Polish and a new musical language.” This music also has its roots in the work of Szymanowski, who had died just five years earlier (1937) and whom Palester obviously admired a great deal. The harmony is modern, the rhythms that of Polish folk music, and for me this is the Polish equivalent of Stravinsky’s Les Noces. It’s a great pity that this work is not performed more often. It has a rhythmic vitality that Szymanowski often avoided in his quest to modernize Polish classical music, yet there are highly unusual passages, such as descending chromatic chords for the chorus near the very end of Part 1, that reflect the great Polish composer’s influence. I was very happy to hear that the women’s choir of the Szymanowski Philharmonic have a good blend; in previous times, Eastern European women’s choruses often sounded shrill and nasal.

Palester’s orchestral palette, at least in this work, tends towards bright sonorities à la Stravinsky as well. The orchestra also includes a piano, an unusual touch. Much of the choral writing is lyrical, although in a modern manner since the harmonies used are sometimes quite exotic. There’s a remarkable passage at about 2:30 into Part 3 that sounds as if it were written by Szymanowski himself, with harp and lower strings added to the mix. In Part 6, the continuous motor rhythms seem to have predated the minimalist movement (as did the contemporary music of Orff). Texts of all three works are included in the booklet but, unfortunately, only in Polish.

Czesław Miłosz (1911-2004) was considered one of Poland’s great contemporary poets; he won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1980. Palester, who knew him personally, chose the poems entitled Faith, Hope, and Love. Written during the war, these poems were, as Miłosz admitted, “an attempt to describe the world as it should be, seen through the eyes of children, unlike the world of horror I had been through,” though he admitted that their simplicity was “slightly misleading.”

If anything, the 3 Poems are written in an even more advanced style, sort of a floating atonal impressionist style—closer to Szymanowski or even early Schoenberg that to Stravinsky here (the harmonic language reminded me of Erwärtung), but also showing a slight influence of more contemporary composers like Crumb and Ligeti. The music hovers around tonality but never quite settles in it, and the vocal line is not entirely grateful for the voice, but pushes it in various edgy directions, evidently trying to bring out in a semi-subtle way the horror of the war while retaining Miłosz’ original words. Once again, I was delighted to hear that the soprano, Iwona Hossa, has a full, beautiful lyric voice lacking the edginess of such earlier Polish sopranos as Teresa Kubiak.

Letters to Mother was based on actual letters written by Juliusz Słowacki, reduced here to those texts that reflected Palester’s own mood, a combination of searing sadness and peace. Although the music is again rather atonal, the orchestral part is more “open,” less dense and less dissonant than the previous two works. As a result, the baritone vocal line is somewhat simpler and less edgy, though still somewhat challenging due to Palester’s unusual note choices. The liner notes indicate that much of the music is built on the three-note sequence of G#, B and G, which the composer called a “death motif.” Again, to quote the liner notes, “The sadness the composer felt, undoubtedly compounded by the death of his beloved wife Barbara and a growing sense of loneliness, found its perfect expression in the words of Słowacki, who wrote: Thus when you think that our fate is inevitable, think that in fact we are the saddest group of people, with no hope and no shocks to the heart.” This work was not premiered until 1994, five years after the composer’s death, ironically in a then-free Poland that Palester did not live to return to. Baritone Szymon Komosa has a fine, rich, somewhat dark voice that is perfectly suited to the music and the words.

All three of these pieces are recorded here for the first time. They make a great introduction to the work of a composer who has, unfortunately, fallen through the cracks, one who is every bit as deserving of revival as the many “entrarte musik” composers we seem to be inundated with nowadays. Highly recommended!

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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