May 1999

Zbigniew Preisner - Requiem for my Friend
Erato 3984-24146-2
Released: 1998

by Srajan Ebaen

Musical Performance ****1/2
Recording Quality ****
Overall Enjoyment ****1/2

[Reviewed on CD]The film-score composer is a relatively new species of artist. His mixed gene pool of genre-crossing influences makes him fluent in a wide variety of musical languages. Such globe-trotting affinities for aural dialects are absolutely mandatory to suit the various periods of time and place for which he supplies the emotional settings and moods. His function, after all, is that of collaborator to the movie director and script writer. He is a master of a kind of musical short hand that is imposed upon him by the precise timing of the visual scenes. Rather than providing mere backdrop atmosphere of sounds and the occasional theme song, the best artists in this field manage to tie together the various vignettes of a movie’s sonic scene accompaniment into one coherent musical statement that stands solidly on its own, apart from the actual film. Some of the most memorable modern music is composed for film, and, curiously, modern often ends up meaning only "contemporary," while the idiom can be as classical as Vivaldi or Chopin.

Chopin’s homeland of Poland has now given rise to another musical genius. Zbigniew Preisner is by many considered one of the most important film-score composers of his generation. A close friendship with Polish director Krystzof Kieslowski and scriptwriter Krysztof Piesciewicz resulted in the award-winning cineastic collaborations of Dekalog, The Double Life of Veronique, Three Colors: Blue, Three Colors: White and Three Colors: Red. Other films with scores by Preisner include Hector Babenco’s At Play in the Fields of the Lord, Louis Malle’s Damage and Louis Mandolki’s When a Man Loves a Woman.

The proven artistic team of the Blue, White and Red movie trilogy had planned a joint performance project, part mystery play and part opera, to premiere at the Athens’ Acropolis. Krystof Kieslowski’s untimely death in 1996 shattered these plans and prompted Preisner to embark on the project under review here, his first full-scale work exclusively for recording and live performance and entitled Requiem for my Friend.

As film composer, Preisner excels at saying much with very little. A certain minimalism and precision of expression is at work even in his Requiem, though it is unencumbered by the demands of timed image frames. Nonetheless, we are enveloped by a very immediate textural atmosphere that projects the listener forcefully into the artist’s world, just like a good movie. This emotional effect becomes especially potent because of the absence of movie images, turning feelings inward into deeper, emptier realms of perception where one encounters the presence of holiness, spirit and serenity -- a very apt response considering the subject of a requiem is the triumph of spirit over matter.

The compositional style and orchestration is classical, but eschews the thematic complexity or development we would expect from 18th- or 19th-century composers. This freedom of counterpoint excess retains a purity that is further enhanced by both the crystalline clarity of Elzbieta Towarnicka’s soaring soprano and the cavernous depth of the Warsaw Cathedral and Emaus Church of Cracow, which served as recording venues. In the "Kyrie Eleison," the organ’s foundation creates a regulated soft pulse that eerily suggests a human heart. Above its steady rhythm rise luminous voices with beautifully controlled vibratos, merging in stately hymns and uplifting psalms. The interplay between string quintet and singers, woven together with natural pauses, leaves room for the sounds to drift off like incorporeal spirits floating through space. This ebb and flow emulates a tangible quality of being carried by a single breath, organic, alive and slow like the relaxed inhalation and exhalation of contemplation.

When, in the "Meeting," a solo alto saxophone enters this tranquil state, it is in the same vein of purity, riding the ambiance of the great acoustics like wafting incense. A muted piano repeats a faint background motif whose minor chromaticism creates a slight blue tension over which breaks a massive chorus that alternates with the libretto wails of the sax. Not since Jan Garbarek’s visit to the Hilliard Ensemble’s Officium Defunctorum has a sax made an appearance in sacred space this hauntingly. Not to be outdone, "Discovering the World" features a glorious Celtic recorder that sails above the calm waters of string pedals, bassoon and bass clarinet. "Love" adds Romanian cimbalom and a luscious soprano melody that evokes images of Vangelis’ Blade Runner score, while the "Apocalypse" movement adds fragmented choral attacks over a jagged piano line reminiscent of Morricone in The Mission. Our aural pilgrimage into Preisner’s temple of friendship remembered concludes in a "Prayer," suitably intoned by a voice less polished than Towarnicka’s while a drone of strings fades slowly into oblivion.

When you spin this disc, take off your shoes and bow your head before you take your seat in the great cathedral -- the next 68 minutes will ask you to leave the hectic world of activity and accumulation outside and immerse yourself into quiet worship of an otherworldly kind. It's gorgeous without apologies.