This is the second time a disc with music
by Zielenski has crossed my path. Only in March of this year I
wrote a review of another disc, with largely the same performers
Some pieces appear on both discs. I have the impression that the
disc I reviewed earlier was a kind of appetizer to a project to
record Zielenski's complete oeuvre. The disc to be reviewed here
is Volume 1.
Little is known about Mikolaj Zielenski, whom a Polish musicologist doesn't hesitate to label "the greatest Polish composer of independent Poland who had lived before Chopin". Zielenski was organist and director of music to archbishop Wojciech Baranowski of Gniezno. To him Zielenski dedicated the only collection of his music which has come down to us. The Offertoria et Communiones Totius Anni
contains music for the church year. In this recording of offertoria the time of the year is given for each offertory.
The Offertoria are scored for up to twelve voices. That’s not
surprising considering that the collection was printed in Venice.
These works are written in the manner of the Gabrielis, father
and son, and their technique of cori spezzati
. At the time
this collection was published, the new concertante style had made
its entry in Italy, but the Venetian polychoral approach remained
attractive to many composers throughout Europe. The choirs often
differ in scoring; in a number of pieces high and low choirs are
In some Offertoria instruments are used to support and give colour to the voices. This practice of instruments playing colla parte
is in line with what we know about performance practice in Venice. I don't understand why here only five of the 23 Offertoria are performed with instruments. And why only trombones? At the time of the Gabrielis cornetts, dulcians and string instruments were also used. More variety in instrumental colour would have given the opportunity to create additional contrast between the two choirs. The violinist named in the header plays only in the last item, but with such large vocal forces the use of a single violin makes little sense.
And that brings me to the issue of the size of the vocal ensembles. The various Offertoria are divided between the Collegium Zielenska and the Capella Cracoviensis. The former consists of 4 sopranos, 3 altos, 6 tenors and 6 basses, which is not ideal, but could be historically plausible. The Capella Cracoviensis, with 8 sopranos, 4 altos, 6 tenors and 9 basses, is clearly too large. Another problem here is the balance between the four voice groups. In particular the alto section is too weak, and the sound is largely dominated by the sopranos and basses. With a choir of this size it is only to be expected that the sung words are often hard to make out. The absence of the lyrics in the booklet doesn't help. It also makes it difficult to say anything about the way Zielenski has translated text into music. I assume there is at least some text expression, judging by 'Terra tremuit' in which the word "tremuit" ([the earth] trembles) is effectively illustrated. This piece for Easter is one of the most dramatic on the disc.
All in all, the performances are too solemn and the singing too straightforward. Music in the Venetian style is much more exciting and engaging than one would guess on the basis of these interpretations. Therefore this recording only gives a faint idea of the true character and quality of this repertoire. It’s certainly not the ideal interpretation of Zielenski's music. Whether Zielenski is indeed the greatest Polish composer before Chopin is hard to say. We have to wait for a really good version to give a fair assessment of his music. I'm afraid that on this showing this project is not going to produce such a recording.
Johan van Veen