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This latest disc from Trinity showcases the talent of this marvellous young choir in a disc of seductively beautiful spiritual music from Poland.
Pawel Lukaszewski is the most outstanding of the younger generation of Polish composers specializing in sacred choral music. His ability to encapsulate the expressive essence of a text with immediacy and economy of technical means is unrivalled, as is his facility of idiomatic vocal writing. He has an enormously subtle and varied harmonic palette—unlike some of his contemporaries—and creates an organically new harmonic world for each piece. His extended tonal sound world is enriched by highly selective use of vocal effects such as glissandi, parlando (speaking) and susurrando (whispering), all of which occur invariably in direct response to clear textual stimuli.
A generous selection of Lukaszewski’s considerable output is recorded here, including the sequence of seven Advent Antiphons composed in 1995–9. Lukaszewski’s extended settings cover a vast expressive range: from the dark eight- and twelve-part sonorities of O Clavis David to the ecstatic concluding superimposed thirds of O Oriens.
Conductor Stephen Layton is one of Lukaszewski’s most enthusiastic proponents—indeed he is the dedicatee of the most recent work on this disc, the Nunc dimittis from 2007. He communicates this deep understanding of Lukaszewski’s music to his young singers, coaxing from them a committed and potent performance.
For those active in the secularly oriented musical life of Britain, perhaps one of the most striking aspects of contemporary Polish culture is the extraordinary vitality and centrality of sacred choral music. The origins of this phenomenon lie in the dual role of the Catholic Church during the years of Communism as a focus of intellectual opposition to the Party and a forum for wide (if often secret) artistic debate. The gravitation of many composers towards the Church was triggered above all by the uncensored premiere of Penderecki’s St Luke Passion in 1966 (the Millennium of Christianity in Poland) and given a powerful surge of additional energy by the election of Cardinal Karol Wojtyl/a as Pope John Paul II in 1978. Since the establishment of democracy in 1989, the renaissance of Polish sacred choral music has continued to flourish, most prominently through interaction with musical developments in the Baltic States (themselves also former Eastern bloc countries).
Of the younger generation of Polish composers specializing in sacred choral music, Pawel Lukaszewski (b1968) unquestionably stands out, not only for his ability to encapsulate the expressive essence of a text with unrivalled immediacy and economy of technical means but also for his facility for idiomatic vocal writing. L/ukaszewski arguably has Church music in his blood, having been born in the southern Polish city of Cze‘stochowa, since the fourteenth century a major centre of pilgrimage on account of the celebrated Black Madonna icon of the Virgin Mary housed in the Paulist monastery of Jasna Góra (Shining Mountain), and today home of the annual Gaude Mater International Festival of Sacred Music.
On the face of it, Lukaszewski’s musical language has obvious affinities with the compositional idioms of his older compatriots Henryk Górecki (b1933) and Wojciech Kilar (b1932), and also with those of the Estonian Arvo Pärt (b1935) and the Englishman John Tavener (b1944). At the heart of his musical language is what Lukaszewski prefers to term ‘renewed tonality’. While this involves the deployment of major and minor triads, which act as core points of reference, and the use of fragmentary vestiges of common-practice harmony, it is primarily founded on the non-functional progression between distantly connected triads and chords with added sixths, sevenths and/or ninths, in addition to more exotic sonorities constructed, for example, from pairs of interlocking perfect fifths. This ‘extended’ tonal sound world is enriched by highly selective use of vocal effects such as glissandi, parlando (speaking) and susurrando (whispering), all of which occur invariably in direct response to clear textual stimuli. Ultimately, the resonances between Lukaszewski’s works and those of his precursors prove to be only superficial: his harmonic palette is more subtle and immensely more varied than those of Górecki, Pärt and Tavener, and he is apt to eschew tried-and-tested formulae, creating an essentially unique mode of harmonic operation for each piece. Equally individual are his meticulous attention to proportional concerns (particularly the placing of climaxes) and metrical patterns, and his derivation of musical structures from the formal and narrative parameters of his texts.
Most of Lukaszewski’s sacred choral works are based on Latin texts of the post-Vatican II period, and he shows a distinct predilection for spiritually charged texts that have been set by relatively few other composers. The fifteen a cappella pieces on this disc span the period from 1992 to 2007, which effectively covers Lukaszewski’s entire compositional career to date. Of the fifteen pieces, the earliest—an Ave Maria for double choir (which has a companion Ave maris stella devised for separate performance)—is the most obviously grounded in traditional harmonic progression (it even concludes with an altered perfect cadence). Notably, however, conventional modulation is entirely rejected and an extraordinary build-up of devotional intensity is achieved with near-exclusive reference to the notes of the G major diatonic scale. Only at the point of climax is a chromatic pitch introduced: an F natural, which is electrifyingly combined with an A minor triad to replicate the climactic chord from the development section of the first movement of Beethoven’s ‘Eroica’ Symphony. Although this allusion might conceivably be unintentional, the ‘Eroica’ chord has an iconic status in Polish music, playing a major role in the final movement of Górecki’s famous Symphony No 3 (the ‘Symphony of Sorrowful Songs’). That the student Lukaszewski could make such a culturally resonant reference without in any way compromising the originality of his emerging creative voice exhibits astonishing maturity. The breathtaking economy of musical materials and profound spirituality that characterize Lukaszewski’s early Ave Maria are also the key components of the Two Lenten Motets of 1995, whose progression from worldly anxiety to serene contemplation of the resurrection is especially absorbing. Unsurprisingly, these motets received considerable acclaim outside the composer’s native Poland after they were awarded a prize in a 1998 French composers’ competition in Tours.
The principal works on this disc are the sequence of seven Advent Antiphons that Lukaszewski composed in 1995–9. These set Latin liturgical texts that were originally seventh-century adaptations of various verses of the Old and New Testaments petitioning the Messiah for salvation and are normally used alongside the Magnifact at evening prayer from 17 December to 23 December. The texts are most familiar to today’s congregations in paraphrase form as the seven verses of the Advent hymn ‘O Come, O Come, Emmanuel!’. Lukaszewski’s extended settings (lasting about thirty-five minutes in total) are ostensibly free-standing pieces covering a vast expressive range: from the despairingly dark eight- and twelve-part sonorities of O Clavis David to the ecstatic concluding superimposed thirds of O Oriens. Nevertheless, there are connecting threads that make performance of the seven antiphons as a set particularly satisfying. On one level, they are arranged in a broad arch, with the texturally dense, experimental and impassioned O Clavis David at the centre. This piece employs as its main point of reference an expanded E minor triad, which acts as a sort of counterpole to the A minor orientation of the outer antiphons O Sapientia and O Emmanuel. The second and sixth pieces—O Adonai and O Rex gentium—also share structural characteristics, most obviously their powerful early textural build-ups from a single line of music. On a higher level, there is a clear emotional progression from the troubled shifting accentual patterns of O Sapientia to the sonorous transcendence and ultimate quiet affirmation of O Emmanuel, whose summational function is underlined by clear recalls of salient elements of several of the preceding antiphons.
Lukaszewski’s other major liturgical cycle to date is the seven-section Beatus vir (1996–2003), each commemorating a particular saint or religious dignitary. Once again, the separate sections are designed for individual performance; three are recorded here (Nos 1, 5 and 6). Beatus vir, Sanctus Martinus is the most joyous of the three. The initial yearning A minor oriented ‘Alleluia’ section sets in motion an epiphanic process, which proceeds via an edgy, minor-inflected Più mosso through a confident, drone-based Moderato to an exultant, major-mode transformation of the ‘Alleluia’ motive. The closing A minor diatonic cluster thus has the effect of returning us to the point where we started whilst simultaneously revealing the true essence of the original materials. Beatus vir, Sanctus Paulus is more direct, unfolding a groundswell of acclamation from its opening gossamer web of syncopated and interlocked perfect fifths. In contrast, Beatus vir, Sanctus Antonius journeys from a secure affirmation of faith to hushed contemplation of divine mystery: straightforward A major-oriented 6/8 phrases at the outset gradually yield to evocative and distant flatward-leaning harmonies overlain by oscillating motion in the sopranos and altos.
A particular preoccupation of Lukaszewski’s in his recent works is the structure-defining potential of intricately changing metrical patterns. The chant-based outer sections of his ternary-form setting of Psalm 102 (2002–3) are especially noteworthy in this regard, as the increasing complexity of the metrical patterns underlying each sequence of gestures is the primary source of musical dynamism.
Outside of Poland, Lukaszewski’s output has been best received in Britain, so it is fitting that the most recent work on this disc, Lukaszewski’s haunting Nunc dimittis of 2007, is dedicated to his most enthusiastic British proponent, Stephen Layton. Characteristically, the Nunc dimittis combines compelling individuality with amazing economy of means. The concluding fade-out is masterfully handled, presenting what can so often be a hackneyed effect in the hands of lesser composers as a refreshed and natural outgrowth of the preceding material. And this sums up perhaps the most valuable and enduring aspect of Lukaszewski’s music: it constantly inspires us to look at the apparently familiar in an entirely new way.
Paul Wingfield © 2008