Given that he is best known as an operatic dramatist, Moniuszko’s liturgical music is surprisingly pious. These four masses, one in Latin, three in Polish, are very much functional liturgy, without any unnecessary decoration, little counterpoint, and only the faintest hint of the Polish folk idioms that permeate much of his other work.
The opening Mass in E flat major is the most straightforward of the four. Setting Latin rather than Polish seems to have increased the composer’s piety, not to mention his rigorous conservatism. You can perhaps detect elements of early Brahms or Bruckner here, but really it is difficult to locate it any more specifically than to Central Europe of the mid-19th century.
Although you wouldn’t know it from the track-listings, none of the other three masses set liturgical texts, and all use Polish language poems from various 19th century sources. The E minor mass has an impressive variety of tempos, textures and moods. At times the effect is quite atmospheric, although it is never dramatic and is always set within narrow stylistic constraints.
The Requiem, or rather ‘Mourning Songs to Holy Mass for the souls of the dead’ is curiously upbeat, or at least up-tempo, given its genre. It remains as reverential as the other works, but without knowing, you’d be hard pushed to pick it out as a requiem. The final Mass in A minor returns us to the austere simplicity of the opening E flat major mass. Rather than the full choir of the E flat major, the A minor uses only ladies’ voices, simplifying the textures yet further.
The Warsaw Philharmonic Choir sing well, although I doubt their musical abilities are particularly stretched by this music. From their tone, they sound like a fairly large choir, yet their accuracy of pitch and ensemble is never in question. The four soloists are stylistically attuned to this music, and manage some characterful solos without disrupting the pious simplicity of the textures. All the masses have organ accompaniments, which are well played and recorded, if unimaginatively written.
So all in all, this one is for Moniuszko fans only. Vocal music was clearly the composer’s greatest strength, and as well as his operas, a number of song-cycles are currently available from various Polish labels. Unless you have a particular interest in mid-19th century Polish church music, you would probably be better off exploring those before venturing into this curiously austere liturgical repertoire.