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Bartłomiej PĘKIEL (d. 1670)
Opera omnia
Octava Ensemble
Polish Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century/Zygmunt Magiera
rec. 2009-2017, St Stanislas Bishop & Martyr Royal Cathedral, Wawel Hill, Cracow; Church of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Cracow; St. Mary Magdalene, Cracow-Witkowice; the Carmelites Church, Przemyśl
Texts and translations included.
DUX 1454-56 [3 CDs: 237:25]

Despite the growing interest in early music, there are still some parts of Europe whose musical past is hardly known, at least outside the region. That certainly goes for Poland. Recently several discs with Polish music of the 17th and 18th centuries have been released. They include music by composers whom very few music lovers outside Poland may have ever heard of. Among them Bartłomiej Pękiel may be one of the better-known (review), probably alongside Grzegorz Gerwazy Gorczycki (1667-1734).

The exact date and place of Pękiel's birth are not known. The German theorist Johann Mattheson claimed he was of German origin, but this remains unproven. He entered the court of King Władysław IV Vasa in Warsaw sometime after 1633, and in 1641 he became vice-maestro di capella under Marco Scacchi. When the latter left the court in 1649, Pękiel took over his duties, although he was only officially appointed maestro di capella in 1653. Two years later Warsaw was captured by the Swedes and the court was dissolved. Pękiel moved to Cracow where he became director of music of the Wawel cathedral chapel.

As this production shows, Pękiel’s oeuvre is not very large but it is of fine quality. One of its interesting features is the difference in style between the music he composed while in the service of the court and his compositions written in Cracow. One could say that Pękiel is a composer with two faces.

In Warsaw he wrote large-scale pieces for voices and instruments, and made use of the Venetian polychoral technique. But the masses and motets he composed in Cracow are more moderate in scoring, written in a more conservative style, and for voices only. That was not unusual at the time. Pękiel’s Italian contemporaries often turned to the stile antico when they wrote liturgical music, especially in Rome, where the ecclesiastical authorities were rather critical towards the new concertato style, which they identified with opera. The Missa Pulcherrima has the addition ad instar Praenestini to its title, which seems to have been added by Maciej Arnulf Miśkiewicz, director of the Rorantist chapel, the ensemble of male singers of Cracow Cathedral. This is a reference to Palestrina. Such indications also appear in the oeuvre of Alessandro Scarlatti.

One should not, however, identify this kind of works with what was written in the 16th century. Like Scarlatti, Pękiel includes elements of the modern style, for instance in the connection between text and music. A striking example is the motet Assumpta est Maria, which is assumed to date from his Cracow period. The lines “gaudent angeli” (angels are glad) and “nos quoque mortales gaudeamus, jubilamus dicentes” (let us mortals too rejoice, with gladness let us say) are singled out through a change of metre. The Missa Paschalis is an eloquent example of a piece where the time of the ecclesiastical year for which it is intended, has left its mark in the way Pękiel has set the traditional text. It has an overall jubilant character, includes some marked rhythms and passages of a declamatory character.

There also is no complete watershed between the two periods in Pękiel’s career. Two masses with the title Missa senza le ceremonie, dating from his time in Cracow, are written in polychoral style, and include a part for basso continuo. Whereas in Venice this style was used to create a greater amount of splendour, and the two choirs often imitated each other, Pękiel sticks to the basics, rooted in the antiphonal style of singing which was known from very early in the history of the church. In the Gloria and Credo of these two masses, the verses are sung in turn by the two choirs. One of the choirs enters when the other choir sings the last words of the previous verse. As a result, these parts of the Mass are very short, despite the length of the respective texts. The Gloria sections take less than two minutes, the Credo 2:21 and 3:45 respectively.

The third mass for eight voices in two choirs is very different. The Missa Concertata La Lambardesca dates from Pękiel’s time at the court in Warsaw. The word concertata refers to the concertato style, which emerged in Italy around 1600. This manifests itself in the separate instrumental parts and the episodes for solo voices. The same goes for the Missa a 14, which consists of only Kyrie and Gloria. Audite mortales is one of Pękiel’s most remarkable compositions. It is a kind of oratorio in the style of Giacomo Carissimi. It opens with a solo for a high tenor, followed by a solo episode for soprano. It includes two passages for bass, who takes the role of vox Christi. In the same style, Pękiel composed the sacred concerto Dulcis amor Jesu for five voices and basso continuo, which shows that he was well versed in the monodic style that was current in Italy at the time he worked in Warsaw.

This set claims to include Pękiel’s entire oeuvre but the work-list in New Grove includes several pieces that are omitted here, such as a Missa in defectu unius contraltus and several masses which have survived incomplete. Unfortunately the liner-notes do not mention incomplete or lost compositions. A complete edition like this deserves a better documentation. It includes two pieces with the title Patrem Rotulatum / Patrem na rotuly. If one looks at the lyrics section in the booklet, their texts seem to have been omitted. However, in fact these are settings of the Gloria from the Mass, save the intonation. This should have been mentioned in the booklet. (From that perspective, they should not have been ranked among the “other sacred works” in the work-list in New Grove, but as sections of the mass.)

The booklet includes a list of singers and instrumentalists, but omits to mention in which pieces they participate. Some masses are performed with one voice per part, in others more singers seem to be involved, but that is not specified. The booklet mentions the dates and venues of the recordings, but not where and when which item was recorded. As one can see, the earliest recording dates from 2009. I reviewed the performance of the Missa Pulcherrima and the motet Sub tuum praesidium in 2010 elsewhere, and I was not very happy with it. This is a performance with one voice per part. I noted that the voices did not blend particularly well, and that the miking was too close. Having listened to them again, I can only confirm this assessment. Therefore I would have preferred a new recording of these two works, especially as the remaining performances are much better. Fortunately these two pieces are available in fine performances under the direction of Andrzej Kosendiak (review).

With the exception of these two works, this complete recording deserves a strong recommendation. Because of my earlier experience, I was rather sceptical when I started listening to these discs but I noted with satisfaction that the Octava Ensemble has developed into a really fine group of singers. They bring the best out of Pękiel’s music. The acoustic circumstances are also much better than in the recording of 2009; there is just enough space around the singers to allow the music to blossom and the voices to come to fruition. The singers also deal well with the monodic pieces included on the third disc.

Pękiel’s music may not be that well known, but it is in no way inferior to what was written by better-known composers across Europe in his time. This production is a worthy monument for a composer who deserves to be better known and whose oeuvre is well worth the attention not only of lovers of early vocal music, but also of choral conductors and vocal ensembles.

Johan van Veen

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