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Paweł ŁUKASZEWSKI (b. 1968)
Responsoria Tenebrae for vocal sextet (2010) [18:26]
Advent Music for string orchestra (2012) [15:26]
Daylight declines for mixed choir (2013) [4:40]
Lenten Music for six saxophones (2011) [16:30]
Prayer to the Guardian Angel for female choir, piano and Chinese balls (2013) [4:42]
proMODERN vocal sextet
Baltic Neopolis Orchestra/Tomasz Tomaszewski
Cantatrix/Geert-Janvan Beijeren Bergen en Henegouwen
Morpheus Saxophone Ensemble
Musica Sacra Warsaw-Praga Cathedral Choir/Paweł Łukaszewski
rec. dates and venues not supplied
Original texts and English and Polish translations included
DUX 1135 [60:11]

I first encountered the music of Paweł Łukaszewski through the 2007 Hyperion CD of his choral music by Trinity College, Cambridge and Stephen Layton (review). Since then I’ve also heard a further Layton/Hyperion disc, which was reviewed by Michael Cookson. I’ve also come across several additional individual choral compositions on mixed recital discs and these have impressed me.

The Polish label Dux has done much to foster Łukaszewski’s music on disc ( review ~ review). Here’s another collection of his music that they’ve assembled.

The programme contains two instrumental arrangements of vocal works. Lenten Music is an arrangement for saxophone sextet that Łukaszewski made of the Responsoria Tenebrae and it’s most interesting to have both on the same disc. Advent Music turns out to be an arrangement for string orchestra of four of the settings of the so-called Great ‘O’ Antiphons. The original choral version of that music, composed between 1995 and 1998, appears on the Trinity College/Stephen Layton CD mentioned above.

It’s the Responsoria Tenebrae that open the programme. I wondered at first if these five pieces were written for choir but the notes inform us that the work was commissioned by the King’s Singers. Here Łukaszewski sets five of the responsories that are said or sung during the offices of Matins or Lauds during the last three days of Holy Week. Unsurprisingly, the music is grave and often sombre, as befits the texts. The group proMODERN is, apparently, the only Polish vocal ensemble that specialises in contemporary music. Such a specialisation inevitably requires a tremendous degree of precision and accuracy. It’s evident from these performances that the six singers - three ladies and three gentlemen - are highly skilled individuals and also expert at singing as a team. The use of a consort of just six voices lends an extraordinary intimacy and clarity to the music and this means that the import of the various texts registers with particular power. The singing is remarkably precise: every chord seems perfectly weighted and balanced so that Łukaszewski’s fascinating and inventive harmonies register with telling effect. All the music is very impressive and I especially admired the gravitas of the fourth piece, ‘O vos omnes’.

The arrangement of the same pieces as Lenten Music for six saxophones is intriguing. I didn’t realise that I was about to experience the same music again until I read the relevant section of the booklet because Łukaszewski doesn’t carry the titles of the vocal pieces over into the saxophone version. Instead the instrumental movements merely have tempo indications - Grave placido, for instance; indeed every tempo indication includes the word “placido”. The saxophone ensemble consists of two soprano instruments, an alto, a tenor and two baritones. I really did wonder how this music would sound when transferred onto these instruments but I was very pleasantly surprised by how effective the arrangements are. I think that’s partly because the saxophones invest the music with a haunting quality that’s entirely appropriate - especially if one has already heard the vocal version. The other reason that it works so well is the extraordinary accomplishment of the players who truly make their instruments sing and who blend with one another to a remarkable degree. We are told that there are “some melodic and rhythmic changes [from the vocal version] here and there” but I suspect these are very minor. I found it very interesting to use the remote control to skip back from listening to a particular track to experience again the vocal version. My personal preference is for the vocal version but it’s fascinating to be able to compare and contrast both scores.

In Advent Music Łukaszewski arranges the first, third, fourth and sixth of his vocal antiphons. The antiphons in question are ‘O Sapiens’, ‘O Radix Jesse’, O Clavis Davis’ and ‘O Rex Gentium’. Again I think the arrangements work well and, as with Lenten Music, the performances here are expert. It sounds to be a fairly small string orchestra that is deployed here - 12 players are pictured in the booklet photograph. I prefer the vocal version - and perhaps a little more strongly than was the case with Lenten Music and its vocal original - but the string version of this music undoubtedly brings something new and different to the music. I was taken particularly with the fourth piece which here has a very passionate, weighty opening - material that is later revisited - which then gives way to richly lyrical lines which suit the string ensemble very well.

Two much shorter vocal works complete the programme. Daylight declines sets an English translation of a sixteenth-century Polish prayer for six-part mixed choir. It’s an interesting and effective setting but it’s not remotely as ear-catching as Prayer to the Guardian Angel. This piece is the Introduction to the composer’s Third Symphony, ‘Symphony of Angels’ (2010). It’s scored for the unusual combination of female choir, piano and Chinese balls. I presume that the Chinese balls are Baoding balls. These are, I confess, something completely new to me but I read on Wikipedia that “most Baoding balls made and used today are constructed as a pair of hollow spheres, one inside the other, with a chime between which rings as the inner ball strikes it.”

The effects that Łukaszewski conjures up in this piece are quite remarkable. The accompaniment barely rises above pianissmo, it seems, and gives the impression of a gently luminescent halo around the singers. The notes refer to the Chinese balls “creating a light, somewhat unreal sound.” As for the choir, they begin by whispering and then sing gossamer-light music. There’s an air of mystery and delicacy about the piece and the ethereal sound-world is truly magical. The music is slow- moving, hypnotic and timeless. I’m not sure the piece would be quite as effective if the duration were much longer but I found it absorbing.

There’s some very beautiful and deeply-felt music on this disc. My concern, however, is that it’s all very introspective. For one thing, there’s a complete absence of happy or extrovert music here. Furthermore, almost everything is in a slow or moderate tempo. Thinking back over the disc and re-reading my notes I’m struggling to recall hearing any music that’s in a fast tempo with the exception of the first movement of Advent Music. Greater variety would be welcome.

The performances by various ensembles are uniformly excellent. The recordings themselves are good and the notes, which are in Polish with a decent English translation, are useful. Subject to the caveat expressed in the preceding paragraph this is a very good collection of pieces by an eloquent composer.

John Quinn


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