Pawel ŁUKASZEWSKI (b. 1968)
Responsoria Tenebrae (2010) (Tenebrae facta sunt [3:22]; Caligaverunt oculi mei [3:59]; Recessit Pastor noster [2:50]; O vos omnes [4:03]; Ecce quomodo moritur iustus [4:12])
Advent music (2012) (Comodo [3:20]; Andante [3:50]; Largo [3:32]; Adagio [4:44]
Daylight declines (2013) [4:40]
Lenten music (2011) (Grave placido [3:40]; Lento placido [3:59]; Grave placido [3:10]; Adagio placido [2:14]; Larghetto placido [3:27])
Prayer to the Guardian Angel (2013) [4:42]
proMODERN contemporary vocal sextet (Responsoria Tenebrae)
Baltic Neopolis Orchestra (Advent music)
Cantatrix (Daylight declines)
Morpheus saxophone ensemble (Lenten music)
Musica Sacra Warsaw-Praga Cathedral Choir (Prayer to the Guardian Angel)
rec. 2014, no other details given
DUX 1135 [60:11]

Among Polish composers younger than Penderecki and Łutosławski, Łukaszewski has become by far the best known. Although he has composed orchestral and chamber music, his reputation is based on his sacred music. He is an ardent Roman Catholic and sets texts mostly in Latin, which, whatever its difficulties, is for English-speaking listeners more accessible than Polish. He has accumulated an extensive discography and this latest disc is listed as the fifth in a series called Musica sacra – though the earlier discs are not in fact all of sacred music.

He acknowledges a debt to his compatriot Henryk Górecki and to the Estonian Arvo Pärt. He calls his musical language ‘renewed tonality’ which means in practice that, though he uses familiar chords, he juxtaposes them in quite startling ways. In fact at times he reminds me less of the two composers I have mentioned than of the Holst of the Hymn of Jesus and the smaller choral works. This is high praise. There is the occasional use of false relations, the clash of a note in one part with a chromatically altered version of the same note in another part, which was a characteristic device of sixteenth century composers such as Byrd.

We begin with the Responsoria Tenebrae. The texts come from the service known as tenebrae (darkness), which is liturgically Matins and Lauds of the last three days of Holy Week sung by anticipation on the night before. In the full service the responsories separate psalms, and candles are progressively extinguished until the church is left in darkness. Some churches still celebrate this haunting and moving service, but the finest settings of the responsories have broken free from their original context and are often performed in a concert setting and recorded on their own. Łukaszewski sets five of the original eighteen responsories for six-part mixed choir, sung here by an expert professional mixed choir, which the music certainly needs with its striking modulations and chromatic colouring.

Advent music is an instrumental version of four of the seven choral works of the cycle Antiphonae. These were settings of the great ‘O’ antiphons sung before and after the Magnificat at Vespers in the run-up to Christmas. The original set have been recorded at least twice, by Stephen Layton on a Hyperion disc which was my introduction to Łukaszewski (review here) and on an Acte Préalable disc which I have not heard (review here). On this Dux disc they are transcribed for string orchestra and become an intense and moving suite.
Lenten music turns out to be another transcription, this time of the Responsoria Tenebrae on this disc. The transcription is for saxophone sextet, a medium which may at first seem bizarre. However, the players use no vibrato and display such perfect unanimity in attack and phrasing that at first I thought I might be listening to an organ. Actually, in the slower movements I was reminded of Carl Ruggles’ Angels, for six muted brass, which like this work in this version creates an ecstatic but distant feeling. Not for nothing is the instruction placido specified for each movement.
Daylight declines sets an English translation of a Polish text, a prayer for help as night falls. This is again for six-part choir with some very adventurous harmonies but the overall effect is peaceful. Prayer to the Guardian Angel is just that, to a Latin text, for women’s choir, piano and Chinese balls. These are presumably Baoding balls, used to exercise the hand, which chime when struck together. This is very slow moving, and of all the works on this disc the closest to Arvo Pärt.

The performances all sound well prepared and, as far as I could judge, idiomatic. We are given no recording details, and a number of different ensembles are involved, but the acoustic throughout seems that of a good concert hall or a mildly resonant church. I was listening on ordinary stereo, though this is actually a hybrid SACD. Other releases on the Dux label have not always had English texts, but here we have a very full and helpful sleeve-note in English as well as Polish, and Latin texts with English and Polish translations. This is well worth exploring.

Stephen Barber

Previous review: John Quinn

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