Krzysztof BACULEWSKI (b. 1950)
Rilke-Lieder (1994) [16:06]
Gloria (1996) [7:08]
Nox ultima, nox beata (1995) [5:12]
Prelude, Psalm and Meditation (2007) [10:38]
Miserere (1999) [5:49]
Ozwodne i krzesane (2000) [9:39]
The Profane Anthem to Anne (1993) [18:27]
Tomasz Orlow (organ); Marek Toporowski (harpsichord); Concerto Polacco; Katowice City Singers’ Ensemble “Camerata Silesia”/Anna Szostak
rec. March, June 2010, Karol Szymanowski Music Academy Concert Hall, Katowice, Poland
DUX 0769 [73:01]

Although the vocal ensemble Camerata Silesia appears regularly in the oratorio repertoire, they also give concerts of smaller-scale and unaccompanied works in chamber choir guise. Twenty or so singers appear on this disc in music which is frequently of fearsome difficulty and much of which was composed for them. They appear to surmount all possible obstacles with remarkable ease.

The Profane Anthem to Anne was commissioned for performance in the same concert as Purcell’s Ode for Saint Cecilia’s Day. It is a setting of words by John Donne, for soprano solo, chorus, strings and continuo. The composer has written that it is “only here and there a stylisation of English Baroque, set in the quotation marks, as it were, of contemporary compositional techniques which manifest themselves discreetly in the music.” Well, I beg to differ, at least with the spirit if not with the letter of this description. The music often sounds more like Lully than anything English, but whole passages go by where the unwary, if hearing only extracts, might think they were listening to real baroque music. Those “contemporary compositional techniques” certainly do manifest themselves discreetly, making them all the more surprising when they occur. There are many striking and beautiful passages in the work, particularly the setting of the second of Donne’s three strophes, but it does seem a strange exercise.

The Rilke-Lieder, on the other hand, from the following year, sounds like another composer altogether. Getting the right notes for the opening chord would be a challenge for all but the finest choirs, even those already experienced in this type of repertoire. The music is highly chromatic and dissonant, though not atonal. Indeed, at many points in these three songs the ear alights on points of repose and harmonic familiarity, and the work closes with an extensive coda in which the tonal centre is well established and the harmonies, for the most part, totally orthodox. The composer is, according to the booklet notes, “free of the relationships of the major-minor mode”, but in spite of this the work “brings to mind the late-Romantic choral songs of composers such as Brahms”. I think most listeners will need a fairly extensive leap of faith to agree totally with this. Again, there is much beauty to be found in this work, and the performance is remarkable. The words are provided in German and Polish only.

Nox ultima, nox beata closes on as straightforward a major chord as you will hear anywhere, and the harmony is quite conservative for much of its length. It is uncompromising, however, in that the “lines of individual parts, overlapping or winding round one another” which are perfectly audible without recourse to the score, often produce quite surprising harmonic clashes. The work was composed at the request of Polish Radio and is dedicated to memory of Béla Bartók.

In the piece entitled Gloria, only the words “Gloria” and “et in terra pax” are used. The first part, repeating the single word, is rapid and dance-like, whereas the second, featuring a solo contralto, is more calm and pensive. The whole work makes much use of glissando techniques and other avant-garde effects, though the musical language is often firmly rooted in tonality. There are also several onomatopoeic passages which, according to the booklet notes, hark back to works by composers such as Clément Janequin. The short Miserere begins dramatically and, after a climax, gradually subsides into calm. Unaccompanied, this is more modernistic in style than much of the music in this collection, and the dissonant harmonies are not without a certain dryness.

The most immediately accessible music on the disc is undoubtedly Ozwodne i krzesane, which the notes describe as an encore piece and which is a kind of fantasy on a folk tune from the Tatra mountains. It is a pity that only the Polish text is given, as one would love to know what story is being told, but the short, repeated phrases so typical of central European folk music are most attractively rendered by the composer. The piece also provides a welcome opportunity to listen to many of this remarkable choir’s excellent solo voices. Apart from a slightly scary first chord there is nothing much here to discourage those still wary of contemporary music. The same, however, cannot be said for Prelude, Psalm and Meditation. As the title suggests, this piece is in three parts and is written for choir, organ and tam-tam. It is highly modernistic, chromatic and dissonant throughout, the tone being set at the outset by the dramatic, heavy organ introduction to the first part which is a setting in Latin of the opening words of Psalm 130, “Out of the depths I cry unto thee”. Much more light is allowed into the music in the middle section, both in the organ writing and in the choral textures, which feature a few vocal effects such as “noteless” glissandi. The tam-tam is heard at the climax of this section, and again at the very end, providing the final note of the calmer, though to my ears no less anguished final section.

Descriptive notes on the music are provided, but sadly no English translations of the sung texts. The performances are stunningly effective and probably definitive. This music provides a challenging listen, but much of it is very beautiful, and all of it is brilliantly written for the voices.

William Hedley

Challenging modern Polish choral music, most of it written for these performers. Well worth a diversion from the beaten track.