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Paweł Łukaszewski (b1968)

Daylight declines & other choral works

Tenebrae, Nigel Short (conductor) Detailed performer information
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Label: Signum Classics
Recording details: May 2016
St Augustine's Church, Kilburn, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Adrian Peacock
Engineered by Andrew Mellor
Release date: June 2018
Total duration: 69 minutes 42 seconds

2018 Grammy Award nominees Tenebrae perform a new collection of choral works by Polish composer Paweł Łukaszewski.

Paweł Łukaszewski was born in southern Poland in 1968 in the city of Częstochowa, a centre of religious pilgrimage owing to the presence there of a statue of the Black Madonna at the Jasna Góra Monastery. There is a predominantly sacred thread to most of his compositions and his international reputation seems to have blossomed on account of his choral output, the majority of it settings of Latin and English texts as opposed to his native tongue. Revered in his homeland, the list of awards and accolades he has received is substantial including the Fryderyk Award and, most recently, the Feniks Prize in 2017. He was composer-in-residence with the Warsaw National Philharmonic Orchestra (2011/2012) and has taught composition in the Fryderyk Chopin University of Music in Warsaw since 1996, where he himself had been a student and was awarded a doctorate in composition. He is Vice-Rector of the university and Professor of Composition. He has garnered prestigious, national honours and his work has a loyal following around the globe, with over 110 CDs of his work to date.

While it is difficult to categorise Łukaszewski’s compositional style, it has a timeless element and is, in his own words, in a renewed tonality. Any description of this genre risks being subjective but it seems to centre around the use of conventional, choral sonorities, often in a clear, homophonic format, yet in a manner which does not lead the listener on a predictable journey, involving unexpected turns in harmonic juxtaposition and rhythmic techniques which make demands of the listener as much as of the performers. In a sense he has a foot firmly in the ancient style of sacred choral writing, something shared by many major composers such as Brahms, Bruckner and Stravinsky when they wrote for choirs. Some textural methods appear idiosyncratic and intricate on paper but lend soft borders to the effects of the music, as if metaphorically viewed through lenses and filters. There is an easily discernible cultural link with his Polish predecessors, such as Lutosławski and Penderecki, but the influence of Henryk Górecki and the Estonian Arvo Pärt is evident in the fervent but restrained spiritual aspect of Łukaszewski’s music, and his individual voice never stoops to mere imitation.

Cantate Domino
This most optimistic and exuberant psalm is set for subdivided choir in a most joyful fashion, with a great deal of word-painting of the praises of the psalm and swinging, repeated bursts of happiness. Rapid vocal passages are biased towards the upper voices with much of the rejoicing and singing to the Lord illuminated by triplet activity in different proportions: choral laughter and dancing. The only ominous note is the heavily scored declamation about the Lord’s coming to judge the earth: 'Quoniam venit iudicare terram'. The short piece is bookended by meditative vocalisations which are evocative of gentle chiming, and a final whispered ‘Domino’.

Like as the waves (Shakespeare’s Sonnet LX)
From the outset of this Sonnet, the pulling of the waves and the pebbles are represented in the outward stretching of the choral writing which, with displaced rhythms between women’s and men’s voices, seems to be hesitant, almost stuttering. There is an unconventional spacing of the choral lines, often leaving the highest part very remote and Łukaszewski’s preferred, stark fifths make an appearance, in this instance combined with semitone clashes, inverted as sevenths and ninths to temper the effect within a wider, starker context. At times there is a unlikely resemblance to some of the favourite dissonances used by the English composer, Gerald Finzi. But mention should be made of a unique metrical device for the repetition of the word ‘time’. The unanimous chords sung on this word are given changing bars in two, three and four-beat metre, but there is a trick employed which the listener could hardly be aware of without the aid of a printed score. Silences are built in to the sequences of the repeated ‘time’, but the silent bars are devoid of the printed rest symbols which are the universally conventional symbol for gaps in sound. It might be argued that the strange look of these empty musical bars invites the musicians to freeze, to hold their breath, reinforcing the word-play, suspending time.

Weary with toil, I haste me to my bed (Shakespeare’s Sonnet XXVII)
It speaks a considerable amount about William Shakespeare’s universal appeal that a Polish composer sets his Sonnets, in this case for unaccompanied choir and with an extended feeling of being held in time, or lulled to sleep. Particular use is made of slow, downward gestures and a thick chordal sound, usually doubled at the octave. The timeless mood is amplified by continual progressions of unresolved second-inversion chords and, as an additional feature, there is a reflected symmetry using the interval of the perfect fifth in opposing motion up and down. This is reminiscent of the effect of string instruments playing their open strings, or looking at ones own reflection in water. There is relief from Łukaszewski’s typical homophonic texture with little waves of forward motion with canonic imitation, lending a little buoyancy and soothing.

Daylight declines
A commission from the Netherlands Cantatrix Choir, this text is by the 16th-century Wacław z Szamotuł in a translation by Marek Żebrowski. There is an element of a Compline prayer in the requests for protection through the approaching night. The music is a soothing treatment of the text, using reflected scales between opposing voice-parts, hovering around the plainchant Mode 1 which Łukaszewski has also employed in his Responsoria tenebrae. Drone-fifths are predominant in the bass part and the declining daylight is evoked by falling triplet figuration throughout the voices, and a noticeable hint of the Lydian mode with its jagged sharpened fourths. The listener can hear a familiarity in this composer’s conventional use of key-areas and modes, but unexpected shifts to new tonal territory always lurk around the corner.

Responsoria tenebraeTenebrae factae sunt
Łukaszewski uses the term 'placido' for each movement of the Responsories, in conjunction with a tempo annotation. In this first movement, the calmness pervades even the manner with the loud voice of Jesus is portrayed. The musical description is more of a personal reflection than a dramatic enactment, which previous composers’ versions perhaps lead us to expect. Extensive use is made of rhythmic dissonance, where the note-values of successive, incanted phrases are paced slightly out of phase, lending a feeling of turbulence or uncertainty. There is a moment of wide-spaced minor-chord consonance on the word 'Spiritum', when Jesus gives up his last breath. Significantly, the other occurrence of this harmony is the only loud moment of the movement: the word Iudaei, near the beginning.

Caligaverunt oculi mei
Is there perhaps weeping, or drops of tears, built into the choral sound of this movement, in the oscillating upper bass line, or in the constant mordent-clusters of the first alto part? This composer makes swift progress through myriad choral techniques and, in this setting, some of the text is divided out from top voice to bottom, and vice versa, splitting up words among the vocal parts. This effect is rather like a spread chord on a harp or lute. There is also a contrary motion between the outer parts with opposing leaps of octaves and sevenths. The sevenths reappear at the climax of the responsory whose clashing, unresolved dissonance returns at the related text in responsory No 4, O vos omnes.

Recessit pastor noster
There is some comfort here, for despite the betrayal and imminent fate of the Lord, the power of evil has been destroyed. There are two opposing elements. First, a quasi-Gregorian-Mode 1 cantabile melody which is raised twice by a semitone step, accompanied by a vocalised, off-beat accompaniment which could be compared to a piano-accompaniment for a song by Schumann or Fauré. The battle of good and evil at the gates of hell is represented by unrelenting dissonances in rhythmic fractions which might suggest that weapon of the Old Testament referred to in Psalm 149: a two-edged sword.

O vos omnes
An impassioned plea from the condemned Jesus himself for the passerby to stop and consider His plight, and further to realise that the debts of all humankind are now heaped on the Saviour’s shoulders. Tomás Luis de Victoria created perhaps his most perfect work in setting these words in his own Responsories, and much is expected of a fresh version of this text. Łukaszewski’s treatment certainly employs dissonance but, imaginatively leaves the resolution of such tension either in a silence in that particular area of the choral sound, or by an incomplete resolution by shifting to another, nearby clash of vocal lines instead. There is also an interplay between the upper three vocal lines and the lower three, a trait which this composer is fond of, and he keeps a symmetry of dissonance in the sense that close dissonances are used as much between the two lowest voices as in the two highest. In the original performance layout with The King’s Singers, the result would be a stereo separation in space, but the effect remains in a vertical plane between the higher and lower voices. By way of respite for the listener, Łukaszewski’s inserts a recurring phrase—a soothing, descending ritornello on the words ‘qui transitis sicut dolor meus’—which is strangely reminiscent of the vocal writing of Claudio Monteverdi.

Ecce quomodo moritur iustus
The text, from the Book of Isaiah, deals with the injustice of an innocent man being led away to the slaughter, portrayed figuratively as a lamb to the shearer which does not bleat in complaint. The division of text is, in this instance, repeated phrases which alternate around the voices and not subdivided words. Use is made of an accompanying moto perpetuo vocalisation, sounding like slow trills in thirds, passed among the voices and this rocking effect is coupled with the swing of alternations of repeated words between contrasting pitches. There is a further feature in this movement: a semitone-shift which typically coincides with the printed bar-lines. There is also one, unexpected semitone transposition in the reprise of the opening material which is a reminder of the exacting choral skills necessary to perform the work.

Lamentations of Jeremiah
This is a substantial and taxing work for interdivided SATB choir, unaccompanied. Commissioned by the Wratislavia Cantans Festival, Poland, it was published in 2011 and sets text from the Book of Lamentations in the Bible, including a musical inscription ‘Here begin the Lamentations …’ and the Hebrew equivalents of page numbers in song, in the tradition established by composers such as Thomas Tallis (c1505-1585). In the Hebrew Bible, the Lamentations form part of the books of the Ketuvim, and are a poetic lament for the destruction of Jerusalem by Babylon. In the Christian Bible it is ascribed to Jeremiah, but only by tradition, and its role is as a metaphor for the death of Christ which is celebrated in the Liturgy of Holy Week.

There is something of the grand-architectural about the form of this piece: a substantial essay in big brush-strokes, starkly-contrasted changes of technique and texture from headings to verses and so on. There is a mixture of metrical complexity and rhythmical dissonance, sustained strands of sounds and dense patterns of intricacy, thick clusters of harmony and the occasional relief of unison lines. But there is a continuous feature made of the role of octaves, between parts and within vocal strands themselves, and dialogue and relationships at one and two octaves apart. There is a suggestion in the sound that there is great throng of people involved—maybe the whole of humanity as part of the narrative. Many of the earlier devices of Paweł Łukaszewski’s are brought together and developed, with wordless vocalisations, extended ostinati, and instrumental-type figurations. In the third Lamentation, extended use is made of an out-of-phase musical timing within each vocal division, resulting in a Mexican wave effect of out-of-time singing, as if in a long column of people in procession.

There are relatively few musical settings of the Beatitudes, perhaps the most notable among them by Arthur Bliss (1961) and Arvo Pärt (1990). This text, from St Matthew’s Gospel (Chapter 5) is difficult to categorise. It is often described as Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount and is neither a prayer nor a narrative, but more a beautiful description of human qualities balanced with the benefits which result from possessing them. In that respect, the text presents some problems for a composer. Its form is rather like a list of statements or rules and one might imagine them inscribed on the wall of a sacred building, each sentence able to exist on its own, having a perfect balance. There is a feeling of a Litany as each phrase except the final one begins with ‘Blessed are …’, always voiced in the plural, as if speaking to the world. The lack of poetic flow might be a reason for dissuading composers from setting the text but, perhaps influenced by the version by Pärt, Łukaszewski uses the solid pronouncements as a shape to write granite-like blocks of strong writing, each separated by a double-bar, providing as much a space for the listener’s thought as for the choir to breathe. The construction is mainly homophonic, the voices singing the words at the same time, rather than creating music on a horizontal, flowing plane. The interesting thread throughout this work appears to be concerned with bells, or at least bell-suggestions. It happens in many ways. Starting on the vertical, many of the 'Beati' statements are ‘chimed’ on harmonies which pile up intervals of fifths and seconds. Although bells have their own, distinct harmonic characteristics, these words, always stated first as a separate gesture, have a ringing quality, and each of the sentences has its own, if you like, add-on bells, in differing proportions, and in imaginative variations. The phrases which follow have two other techniques which develop the initial tolling effect. There is a comprehensive use of graded proportions of note-values, nothing unusual in itself, but here used to distract us from the restrictions of measured note-lengths and to throw the piece into the freedom of bell-pealing. In addition, there is a deliberate delay built-in to some of the rhythms, rather like the delay between pulling on the rope and the bell sounding. This is not immediately clear but creates a subtle impression of the cacophony of bells being heard reflected from walls, out of time and sometimes with chaotic harmony. At the climactic point, where the text lines change from 'Beati' to 'Gaudete et exsultate' ('Rejoice and be glad'), all the voices are in exact synchronisation, but they still make use of the same, ringing shapes as have been impressed on our ears from the opening of the work.

Greg Murray © 2018

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