'Lukaszewski's reputation is growing rapidly, and rightly so … Here, Christ's victory over death enables Lukaszewski to end on a triumphant coda that carries a primal power recalling Orff's Carmina Burana and Penderecki's St Luke Passion … All the performers evince an emotional commitment to the content as well as to accurate technical realisation of the music. The purity of sound achieved by Polyphony's sopranos and countertenor Iestyn Davies is notable, so too is Roger Allam's sonorous narration' (BBC Music Magazine)
'A composer with a profound understanding of the technical and emotional range of the human voice … The shining writing for the countertenor Evangelist (performed by the outstanding Iestyn Davies) … and the Resurrectional blaze of the final 'Christus vincit'. This string of moments, by turns bright and oppressively dark, dramatic and reflective, receives a performance of the very deepest conviction by Polyphony and the Britten Sinfonia under Stephen Layton, and the recorded sound is wonderful' (Gramophone)
'This eminently accessible oratorio, whose impact is unquestionable … The piece is delivered with passionate, almost frightening intensity. From Polyphony under Stephen Layton's inspired direction one expects no less: luminously clear textures … His three vocal soloists are admirable too: the countertenor Iestyn Davies as the Evangelist in particular finding in his contributions a beautiful combination of sweetness and compassion' (International Record Review)
'From the arresting opening eruption, reminiscent of the famous ‘O fortuna’ from Carl Orff’s “Carmina burana”, it is instantly clear that this is a passionate performance of a powerful work. Through its ensuing myriad contrasts, the peerless skill and unwavering dedication of Polyphony, the Britten Sinfonia, soloists and conductor Stephen Layton result in a compelling performance of Pawel Lukaszewski’s moving oratorio … It is impossible to envisage a better performance. Strongly recommended' (ClassicalSource.com)
Introduction Via Crucis [0'58]
Christus vincit [0'56]
Stephen Layton’s first disc of(with The Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge) was widely praised by listeners entranced by the composer’s unique yet accessible musical language. For this new release Layton and Polyphony, together with the Britten Sinfonia and a team of world-class soloists, have taken on a major work which is destined to become a modern classic in the vein of Tavener’s The Veil of the Temple or Pärt’s St John Passion. Via Crucis is a dramatization of the Stations of the Cross, a musical reading of this most solemn journey that evolves through its 55-minutes in an arc of culminatory ritual power.
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Some can relate better than others to the generalized assertion that ‘music and maths go together’. To any gifted musician with memories of teenage quadratic-equation trauma, perhaps the statement would ring truer if it were adjusted to ‘music and arithmetic go together’. Because there is no doubt that music, at a fundamental level, is all about numbers—counting the beats of a bar, counting the notes of the scale from one to eight.
Numerical relationships, and their larger structural possibilities, have fascinated composers across the centuries. Musicologists have feasted on Bach’s predilection, symbolically so, for the number three. Dufay’s isorhythmic motet Nuper rosarum flores, written for the dedication of Florence Cathedral in 1436, has been shown to be based on the proportional relationships of the building’s floorplan. Modernity in music, from serialism onwards, has often bound pitch, rhythm and number patterns together.
So it is interesting that the numbers seven and fourteen, so closely associated with the Passion story, haven’t attracted more composers for the structural possibilities they afford in shaping larger works. Haydn created an extended, seven-movement meditation, both as a string quartet and a cantata, on the Seven Last Words (actually seven short sentences) uttered by Christ on the cross. James MacMillan followed this example in 1993, with his striking work for choir and string orchestra (recorded by Polyphony for).
Significant works based upon the 14 Stations of the Cross can likewise be counted on one hand. There is—like Haydn, this Passiontide work comes in more than one form, the main one being for choir and organ. There is Marcel Dupré’s Le chemin de la croix, Op 29, a liturgical sequence for organ. William Mathias’s Organ Concerto is structured upon the 14 Stations, and fourteen composers contributed separately to a work for Australian vocal ensemble The Song Company in 2004.
Is it the overt Roman Catholic associations that have limited the number of composers attracted to the structural possibilities of 14 Stations of the Cross? After all, the ‘storyboard’ of Mel Gibson’s gorily controversial movie The Passion of the Christ closely follows the 14 Stations. Clearly favouring the broader Passion narrative and Stabat mater text, have Protestants, Lutherans and composers of little-or-no faith tended to steer clear of this very Roman form of veneration?
There is no doubting Pawel Lukaszewski’s embedded links to Poland’s particular strain of Roman Catholicism. He was born and raised in the southern Polish town of Czestochowa, for many the country’s spiritual capital and home of the Black Madonna icon in the Jasna Góra monastery. Lukaszewski readily acknowledges the influence of growing up alongside Poland’s holiest relic, and amongst a steady throng of spiritual pilgrims. It has shaped his musical and spiritual being; and although he studied cello, alongside composition, at Warsaw’s Fryderyk Chopin University of Music, the majority of his output to date comprises sacred choral works (see) and he is Music Director of the Musica Sacra Choir at Warsaw Cathedral.
The Jasna Góra monastery and the Black Madonna icon itself have ancient pasts. Before its transfer to Czestochowa in the year of the monastery’s foundation, 1382, the origin and whereabouts of this soot-blackened painting of the Virgin and Christ child remain the subject of legend and conjecture. The evangelist St Luke is said to have painted the icon on a cypress table-top belonging to the Holy Family. It apparently moved from Jerusalem to Constantinople in 326 A.D., where its miraculous powers repelled Saracen invaders. Similarly, once in Czestochowa, the Black Madonna’s presence helped drive away a large army of Swedish invaders, causing King Kazimierz the following year, 1656, to proclaim the Black Madonna as Queen and Protector of Poland.
Both the monastery and the icon are closely related to more recent events, ones of more direct relevance and resonance for someone like Lukaszewski, growing up there in the 1970s and ’80s. During World War II, under German occupation, the faithful made pilgrimages as a show of defiance. Jasna Góra contains the ashes of Father Jerzy Popieluszko, chaplain of the Solidarity movement who was murdered by the secret police in 1984. Lech Walesa gave his Nobel Peace Prize medal to the monastery as a votive offering in 1982, and John Paul II, on becoming Pope in 1979, celebrated Mass there for a million people on the monastery steps.
All of this is important in considering the work featured on this recording, because the sense of ecstatic, redemptive victory at the end of the work (Christus vincit) needn’t be regarded merely in literal, religious terms. The journey witnessed in the Via Crucis—the conflict, the suffering, the humiliation, the defiance, the resurrection—can also be seen as a reflection on Polish Catholicism’s victory over Communism. This is certainly the joined-up message in Jerzy Duda-Gracz’s paintings for the Stations of the Cross at Jasna Góra, created at the same time as, but not in connection with, Lukaszewski’s work. A striking image such as Jasnorgórska Golgota, featured on this booklet’s cover, politicizes and updates the crucifixion iconography. The Polish Pope, Karol Wojtyla, is joined in this deposition scene by other clerics—presumably from Jasna Góra’s past and present—a concentration camp inmate and by the Black Madonna icon itself.
Meurig Bowen © 2009