Best Scores of 2014 – Poland and Eastern Europe
My third article in my Review of the Year 2014 looks at the Best Scores from Poland and Eastern Europe. It has been exciting to watch the emergence of several young, talented Polish composers over the last few years, as the ‘old guard’ of composers like Wojciech Kilar and Zbigniew Preisner pass the film music torch onto the next generation. This year’s crop of scores from the European continent’s eastern edge includes two scores examining the subject of the 1944 Warsaw Uprising from different musical points of view, the score for the top-grossing film at the Polish box office in 2014, and an excellent multi-national fantasy score from Russia, written by a Spaniard!
BOGOWIE – Bartosz Chajdecki
Bogowie (“Gods”) is a critically acclaimed, enormously successful Polish drama film directed by Łukasz Palkowski, which tells the story of Zbigniew Religa, a pioneering cardiologist in the 1980s who performed the first successful heart transplant in Poland, despite interference from obstructionist colleagues, and battles with the patrician communist regime. The film – which has taken $9 million at the Polish box office, making it the #1 film of the year – stars Tomasz Kot as Religa, and has an original score by Bartosz Chajdecki, arguably the most in-demand composer working in Poland today.
Chajdecki’s music is more contemporary than we often hear from him; in a departure from the sound of scores like Czas Honoru and Baczynski, here he augments his string orchestra with piano, electric guitar, rock percussion, and electronic ambiences, resulting in a much more modern sounding work. The idea behind it was to try to musically capture the sound and feel of Poland in the 1980s, while still remaining classically appropriate, and the resulting score does just that. The opening “Retrospekcja” is great, a stately theme mixing piano and surging strings with the guitar, setting out the style for much of the rest of the score to come.
Piano and guitar lines dominate cues like “Operacja”, “Deszcz”, “Ambicja“, “Zegar”, and “Wykres” building around an undulating main theme on the keyboard, with expressive guitar, string and percussion textures emanating from this central ideas, all of which are really superb – although occasionally (and entirely coincidentally!) some of them remind me “Drag Racer” by the Doug Wood Band, which the BBC’s use for their coverage of the snooker! The string surges in the central piece, “Bogowie”, and the boldly dramatic pair “Mały Labirynt“ and “Duży Labirynt” are excellent; elsewhere, pieces like “Oczko” have a cool urban vibe with more throbbing guitar work, while the rhythmic ideas in pieces like “Telefon” have a hint of Clint Mansell about them. Meanwhile, “Jezioro” is more introspective, presenting a solo piano variation of the score’s main theme.
Bogowie is an enjoyable album which showcases another aspect of Bartosz Chajdecki’s musical personality, and highlights his increasingly obvious versatility in composing music across multiple genres, with different but equally accomplished writing styles. The score is available as an import from Poland on the Polskie Radio label, and comes recommended by me.
Track Listing: 1. Retrospekcja (1:59), 2. Operacja (2:58), 3. Deszcz (1:42), 4. Bogowie (5:00), 5. Korytarz (1:26), 6. Oczko (3:37), 7. Telefon (0:56), 8. Mały Labirynt (4:45), 9. Ambicja (3:29), 10. Jezioro (1:21), 11. Zegar (3:06), 12. Piąta Doba (1:23), 13. Droga (0:45), 14. Dziękuję (2:07), 15. Transplantacja (1:56), 16. Śpiący Bogowie (1:19), 17. Duży Labirynt (4:40), 18. Wykres (2:03), 19. Jazda (2:42), 20. Tykanie (2:57), 21. Determinacja (2:10), 22. Dymek [BONUS] (2:52). Polskie Radio PRCD-1889. 55 minutes 15 seconds.
MIASTO 44 – Antoni Lazarkiewicz
Miasto 44 is the other major 2014 film dealing with the events surrounding the Warsaw uprising of 1944, in which members of the Polish resistance tried to liberate the city of Warsaw from Nazi Germany before the arrival of Soviet Union’s Red Army at the end of World War II. The Uprising was the largest single military effort undertaken by any European resistance movement during World War II, and lasted for 63 days, during which a great deal of the city was destroyed. This film, which was directed by Jan Komasa, stars Józef Pawłowski as Stefan, a young man suffering at the hands of the occupying German forces, who joins the underground Polish Home Army, and vows to fight for his country and his family – especially Biedronka (Zofia Wichłacz), who becomes Stefan’s first love.
Poland seems to be going through a period of significant introspection at the moment, examining the legacy of World War 2 and its place within it; this is the second film that Komasa has directed this year alone dealing with the same subject matter – the other being the docu-drama Powstanie Warszawskie – and it’s fascinating to hear the different musical ideas different composer bring to essentially the same story. The score for Miasto 44 is by Polish composer Antoni Lazarkiewicz, who also impressed this year with his evocative, moody score for the American TV horror remake of Rosemary’s Baby.
Lazarkiewicz introduces his waltz-time folk music-inspired main theme in “Warszawa 44”, and returns to it frequently throughout the score, with performances for woodwinds, strings and martial snares in “Konspiracja”, with a more downbeat aspect in “Przysięga”, and with a sense of tender reflection in “Śródmieście” and the conclusive “Walc Na Pożegnanie” – the “Farewell Waltz”. Lazarkiewicz clearly intends for the theme to represent the heritage of the Polish people, and their steadfastness in the face of danger, and he succeeds in conveying that message. It also helps that the theme is quite beautiful in its own right, elegant and charming, but not overly whimsical.
At the other end of the scale, “Warum Dieser Hass Im Blick?” is quite dissonant and avant-garde, offsetting string sustains with various metallic chimes and textures, making the listener uneasy. “Godzina W” and the grating, industrial action tracks “Czołg Pułapka” and “Miasto Płonie” all feature the unexpected sound of a chugging electric guitar and a bank of synth textures underneath the orchestra, giving them a slightly anachronistic feeling that stands at odds with the rest of the score; clearly, their intent is to capture the darkness and chaos of the time, and on those terms they do achieve their aims, but I personally found them to be more akin to sound effects tracks rather than anything particularly musical. The only exception to this are the opening section of “Do Kanału” and the entirety of “Ostatnia Reduta”, which include rhythmic synth pulses throbbing underneath the orchestra that has a flavor of the latest Tron movie, and often are quite exciting and energetic, but unfortunately too often descend back into noisy grinding during their moments of down-time.
Fans of emotional scores, especially ones with a hint of folk music flavor, will find a great deal of Miasto 44 much to their liking. Some of the more contemporary industrial synth cues do break up the flow of the album, and break the spell Lazarkiewicz creates with his more traditional pieces, but these can be arranged or omitted to create a better listening experience without harming the score’s narrative flow. As another entry into the ever-increasing cache of Polish WWII scores, Miasto 44 is worth seeking out.
Track Listing: 1. Warszawa 44 (1:41), 2. Warum Dieser Hass Im Blick? (2:23), 3. Konspiracja (2:24), 4. Godzina W (4:06), 5. Biedronka (1:40), 6. Przysięga (1:36), 7. Czołg Pułapka (5:38), 8. Uciekniemy Stąd (3:01), 9. Miasto Płonie (5:58), 10. Do Kanału (3:48), 11. Śródmieście (3:30), 12. Goliat (2:57), 13. Po Co To Wszystko Było (2:43), 14. Ostatnia Reduta (5:09), 15. Do Rzeki (4:43), 16. Walc Na Pożegnanie (2:25). Warner Music Poland 0825646206353; 53 minutes 50 seconds.
POWSTANIE WARSZAWSKIE (WARSAW UPRISING) – Bartosz Chajdecki
Powstanie Warszawskie (“Warsaw Uprising”) is an unusual but important docu-drama about the famous 1944 event in which members of the Polish resistance tried to liberate the city of Warsaw from Nazi Germany before the arrival of Soviet Union’s Red Army at the end of World War II. The Uprising was the largest single military effort undertaken by any European resistance movement during World War II, and lasted for 63 days, during which a great deal of the city was destroyed. The film takes actual footage of the Uprising, shot while it was happening, and presents it to modern audiences via a framing device, whereby two fictional brothers are said to be filming the events for a piece of propaganda, and it is through a combination of their voiceover and ‘their footage’ that we watch the events unfold. The film is directed by Jan Komasa in collaboration with the Muzeum Powstania Warszawskiego, features the voices of Michał Żurawski and Maciej Nawrocki, and has an original score by Bartosz Chajdecki.
Chajdecki is well versed in writing music for Polish war stories, having come to prominence scoring the wartime drama Czas Honoru. Powstanie Warszawskie does have a few things in common with that score, notably the instrumentation, which concentrates on strings and piano, and the overall stylistic, which is unashamedly classical.
Gorgeous string textures dominate cues such as the opening “1939”, which pits a surging string motif against a lyrical cello and the unexpected inclusion of an electric guitar. A flash of regional accordions underpin the frenetic movement of “Świt ’42” and “01.08”, adding the flair of Polish folk music to the proceedings, while in “Lato” they have a lovely, almost romantic air, performing part of a secondary theme for lilting pianos and a soft string wash. They return again in the more contemporary-sounding “Młodość ’44” and “63”, adding some spicy flavor to the string phrases, guitar chords, and modern percussion section.
A sense of great tragedy permeates cues like “Syrena”, with great searching string tones and dense piano chords that have more than a hint of Wojciech Kilar about them. Subsequent cues like “Akcja” and “Wola 05.08” have a howling sense of melancholy and a sampled, ghostly choir, while “Prudential” is a vivid musical depiction of shell-shocked disbelief and disorientation. One of the best cues is the sublime “Wolność ’44”, a glorious, hopeful melody full of beautiful string textures in combination with a lyrical, passionate piano motif; these ideas return in “Marsz 02.10” and the conclusive “Wolność”, which merge both the Kilar-style emotional writing with the more heroic, celebratory ideas into a suitable finale.
One of the most impressive things about Powstanie Warszawskie is the way in which Chajdecki was able to write music for what is essentially the same subject matter as Czas Honoru, but have it be identifiably different. As the film is more about remembrance of the *real* people involved in the Warsaw Uprising, and features footage of them in the moment, Chajdecki’s restraint and respectfulness is admirable, while remaining musically interesting and emotionally appropriate.
Track Listing: 1. 1939 (1:46), 2. Świt ’42 (2:53), 3. Syrena (2:47), 4. 01.08 (3:45), 5. Lato (2:36), 6. Akcja (2:47), 7. Wola 05.08 (2:45), 8. Wolność ’44 (3:30), 9. Młodość ’44 (3:07), 10. Zamknij Oczy (2:23), 11. 63 (4:38), 12. Prudential (2:46), 13. Fajny Jesteś, Szkoda, Gdyby Cię Dziś Zabili (3:32), 14. Życie (2:44), 15. 13.08 (1: 53), 16. Zrzut 18.09 (2:23), 17. Nadzieja ’44 (2:33), 18. Starówka 02.09 (1:46), 19. PAST-a (3:28), 20. Marsz 02.10 (4:12), 21. 21:00 (2:55), 22. Wolność (3:35), 23. Tyle Nadziei, Tyle Miłości (written by Karim Martusewicz and Adam Nowak, performed by Adam Nowak and Sylwia Wisniewska feat. Karimski Club) (3:55). Agora/Muzeum Powstania Warszawskiego, 68 minutes 33 seconds.
VIY – Anton Garcia
Viy is an ambitious Russian action/adventure/mystery movie starring Jason Flemyng and Charles Dance, directed by Oleg Stepchenko, based on the classic 1835 short story by Nikolai Gogol. In the early 18th century, British cartographer Jonathan Green undertakes a scientific voyage from Western Europe to the East. Having passed through Transylvania and crossed the Carpathian Mountains, he becomes lost in a fog and finds himself in a small village surrounded by dense woods. Green learns that villagers are fearful of an apparent evil that lurks in the forest, and have dug a deep moat to cut themselves off from the rest of the world; initially skeptical of the ‘backward’ folk, Green soon discovers that some horror stories have an element of truth.
The music for Viy is by Russian-based Spanish composer Anton Garcia, and is a rich blend of beautiful swashbuckler melodies, somber passages for solo strings, and strong ominous passages featuring the muscle and grace of a full orchestra and choir (the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Adam Clemens). The result is very elegant, uptempo, energetic and enjoyable adventure film score that earmarks Garcia as a composer to watch.
The score jumps from the fantasy-style “Prologue” – all twinkling fairy chimes, throbbing orchestral lines and choral accents – to more abstract, dissonant, identifiably darker ideas which come peeking through in cues like “Death of Pannochka”, which combines Slavic vocals with tension-filled string sustains, or “First Night”, which has a curious but entertaining combination of rampaging string and brass writing underpinned with unusually light and playful xylophones.
Some of the travelogue cues, like “Escape” and “Through Transylvania”, have a lightness and elegance to them, almost bordering on whimsy, with vibrant string lines and a fun, optimistic horn refrain. The action music is bold and exciting – listen to the brass performances in “Wolves”! – with middle-album cues like “Second Night”, “Third Night” and “Devilry” being especially impressive in their scope and orchestral creativity. “Ms. Dadly”, on the other hand, features a gorgeous, emotional violin lament that is simply sublime, and feeds beautifully into the equally sweeping “Epilogue”. While Viy is not strong in terms of recurring thematic ideas, there is enough going on in the orchestra with regard to the instrumental choices and the performance techniques to satisfy discerning listeners.
I’m always fascinated to hear works by comparatively new composers like Anton Garcia, and I will certainly be keeping my ear to the ground for other scores by him in the future. The soundtrack is available on producer Godwin Borg’s Kronos record label, and is recommended by me as one of 2014’s strongest – and most under-the-radar – fantasy scores.
Track Listing: 1. Prologue (3:29), 2. Death of Pannochka (1:28), 3. Escape (0:57), 4. Through Transylvania (1:51), 5. Flying on a Witch (0:55), 6. Wolves (3:55), 7. Dorosh and Overko (0:44), 8. First Night (2:54), 9. Second Night (4:30), 10. Third Night (5:35), 11. Old Church (2:26), 12. Devilry (0:45), 13. Nastusia (1:22), 14. Where Is My Money? (1:18), 15. Witch (1:45), 16. Paisiy (1:54), 17. Ms. Dadly (1:07), 18. Salvation (1:43), 19. Epilogue (1:01). Kronos Records KRONCD-056, 39 minutes 49 seconds.