Pawel ŁUKASZEWSKI (b. 1968)
Cantate Domino (2014) [4;26]
Shakespeare Sonnets (2015) [8:19]
Daylight declines (2013) [4:54]
Responsoria Tenebrae (2010) [28:17]
Lamentationes (2011) [18:51]
Beati (2014) [9:59]
rec. 2016, St. Augustine’s Church, Kilburn, London
Texts and translations included
SIGNUM CLASSICS SIGCD521 [69:45]
The Polish composer Pawel Łukaszewski is best known for his choral music, which been performed all over the world. It helps that he tends to set texts in Latin or even English more than in his native Polish; this makes his works more accessible to international audiences. He has developed an attractive and easily recognizable idiom which he calls “renewed tonality”, in which the individual chords may be familiar, but their juxtaposition and combination is often strange and startling. He often writes homophonically, that is, with the different vocal parts moving together, but he can also practise subtle rhythmic layering and complex textures which make great demands on his singers. He acknowledges a debt to Henryk Górecki and Arvo Pärt but really he has developed his own idiom. The booklet for this disc compares him at one point to Finzi, but I think a closer comparison is with Holst, in his exquisite smaller choral works in that he has a rather similar harmonic vocabulary and likes sudden harmonic side-slips and the effect of moving into and out of complex chords. There is, however, one great difference: Holst can display tremendous rhythmic vitality; Łukaszewski, however, usually writes slow-moving music. For this reason, I would not advise listening to this disc straight through, but to take one work at a time.
We begin with Cantate Domino, which sets Psalm 96 (95 in the Vulgate numbering) and is the only joyous and exuberant work in the collection. Even so, it slows for one brief, sombre passage at the thought of judgement. There is no Gloria Patri at the end, which rather precludes its liturgical use.
It is a bold composer who sets Shakespeare’s sonnets, whose compressed and elliptical language is a far cry from the songs in the plays which composers usually prefer. Here, Łukaszewski has set two of them, and in the original English, too. In Like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore (Sonnet 60) the wavelike movement dominates the piece, though we should note the repeated emphases on time, a major theme in the sonnets. Weary with toil I haste me to my bed (Sonnet 27) features complex chords which suddenly change. I was impressed by these two settings.
Daylight declines sets an English translation of a Polish poem whose language is very close to that of the hymn for Compline (the last service of the day), Te lucis ante terminum (Before the ending of the day). As suits a piece about the end of the day and the approach of night, the music is gentle and soothing.
The two longest works here both set music associated with Holy Week. 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 there are psalms, readings from the Book of Lamentations and responsories, 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 and lamentations have broken free from their original context and are often performed in a concert setting and recorded on their own. Łukaszewski’s settings seem intended for concert performance; they would be too demanding except for the most expert of church choirs.
Łukaszewski sets five of the original eighteen Responsories, for six-part mixed choir. These are strange, hermetic pieces with complex textures and some rhythmic instability. There is a fair amount of dissonance, but it is not grating on the ear and the work is powerfully atmospheric. Something similar can be said of the Lamentations, of which he sets three. This time the choir is in four parts and the techniques include wordless vocalisations, ostinati and, in the third Lamentation, which is probably the most impressive, some strange musical timing creating a wave effect.
Finally, we have Beati, which sets the beatitudes from the fifth chapter of St. Matthew’s Gospel. Although the passage is very well known it is rarely used for musical setting, perhaps because it contains no narrative but is rather a series of parallel statements. The setting is mainly homophonic, and the booklet draws attention to the frequent use of bell effects and, again, some carefully composed rhythmic instability.
The performances here seem absolutely expert, secure in the many strange harmonies and shifts. Although they have, as far as I know, previously recorded only one of Łukaszewski’s short works, they have recorded demanding settings of the Tenebrae Responsories by Victoria and Gesualdo, as indeed befits their name, and, in an idiom closer to this, a disc of Arvo Pärt. The recording is warm but there is a tendency for the words to blur and the listener needs to keep the booklet close to hand. This is a bit short on dates but it does give texts and translations - though I noticed a couple of odd slips: the first line of the second Shakespeare sonnet is incomplete, and Judaei (Jews) in the first of the Tenebrae Responsories is not translated. However, these are minor points: this is a thoroughly worthwhile recording.