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The suspended harp of Babel
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Robert Kaczorowski (baritone)
Anna Mikolon (piano)
Andrzej Szadejko (organ)
rec. 2009-19, Resurrection Church, Gdańsk-Wrzescz; Studio Radia Gdańsk; Studio MTS Mariusz Zaczkowski, Gdańsk, Poland
Notes in Polish & English; sung texts in Latin with Polish and English translations. ACTE PRÉALABLE AP0466 [61:41]
Much of the best Polish art and music I have seen and heard in recent years has had its origins in the continuing vitality of the Roman Catholic church in Poland (there has also been quite a flourishing of ‘Catholic’ poetry). This current CD has its origins in the Catholic church too, in at least two senses: the vocal soloist, Robert Kaczorowski is not only a fine baritone, he is also a parish priest in the Archdiocese of Gdańsk (and, incidentally an organist) The programme, which he seems to have devised for this CD, obviously has its origins in the church too. Its ‘thesis’ is made clear early in Kaczorowski’s booklet notes:
“Through this album, I would like to invite you to take a fascinating trip ‘Ad fontes’, meaning back to the source. These are songs, whose roots reach deep into Old Testament Jewish temple practice. Borrowed by the Christians, these songs were the beginning of what we today call Gregorian chants. It is a single voice song, performed a cappella, constructed around the modal scales….”
“The following album is a tentative attempt at presenting Gregorian chants and their inspirations, which can be found in the music of Antonin Dvořák – representing the Czech Republic - Stanisław Moniuszko, and Bernadetta Matuszczak – a contemporary Polish composer.”
There is more than a little in that first paragraph which might be challenged by specialist scholars but nevertheless is provides an effective basis for an interesting album. Fr. Kaczorowski begins his programme with ‘Exsultet iam angelica turba’. The text of this hymn – sung by the deacon, in the service of the Easter Vigil, to celebrate the resurrection of Christ – has often been attributed, with some plausibility, to St. Ambrose (who died in 397 A.D.). This ‘performance’ has a sustained intensity.
In its opening the initial invocation of exultation has considerable dignity and even as the performance gathers greater fervour, it never does so at the expense of the necessary solemnity. My attention was fully held for the more than fourteen minutes of the recording the first time I listened to it, and that experience was repeated on subsequent hearings. It makes a spiritually moving opening to the disc, not least when the deacon sings of the doctrine of ‘felix culpa’, a passage which finds Robert Kaczorowski at his very best; this doctrine sees in the Fall a necessary cause of Christ’s redemptive death – the ‘happy fault’ of our first parents thus gaining for humanity the possibility of salvation and eternal life. The text of this hymn is, indeed, one of the very earliest surviving statements of the doctrine:
O felix culpa, quae talem ac tantum meruit habere Redemptorum! / O happy fault, that merited such and so great a Redeemer!
The second Chant on the disc, ‘Caelestis aulae Nuntius’, was a much later creation than ‘Exsultet iam angelica turba’, belonging to the 18th Century. It originally appeared only in the Dominican Breviary; different authorities attribute it to either of two Dominicans, Thomas Ricchini or E. Sirena. It was intended for use on the Feast of the Most Holy Rosary (October 7) – a Feast established by Pope Pius V in celebration of the victory of the Christian fleet over the Turks at the battle of Lepanto on 7 October 1571. The pious attributed that victory to the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Naturally, the text alludes to that event, but also has a wider reference to the redemptive power of the Virgin, as in the last two stanzas, as translated by Alan G. Mcdougall (1922):
The joyful Mother finds once more
The Son she mourned as lost before;
While doctors by His speech were shown
The mysteries they had never known.
To God the Three in One be praise,
Who through these holy mysteries;
Grants grace to those who seek in prayer,
The glory of His bliss to share.
‘Caelestis aulae Nuntius’ would normally be sung by a choir rather than a soloist, but Fr. Kaczorowski’s delivery is assured and convincing, those last two stanzas carrying a powerful sense of conviction.
The text of ‘Stabat mater dolorosa’ is normally attributed to Jacopone da Todi (c.1230-1306), who became a Franciscan after the death of his wife. The plainsong setting of his beautifully poignant text was presumably contemporaneous or, at any rate, produced soon after his death. It has, of course, been set (sometimes with variants) by a whole host of composers from Josquin Desprez and John Browne (amongst the earliest) through Charpentier, Vivaldi and Pergolesi to Frank Martin and James MacMillan, to name but a few. Yet for all the impact and subtlety of the best of these hundreds of later settings, my own feeling is that the original ‘Gregorian’ setting has a greater and more distinctive power. No later setting, surely, quite equals it in clarity or tender poignancy. Certainly, this solo reading by Robert Kaczorowski is memorable (aided by a splendidly resonant recorded sound), a performance capturing to perfection the affective spirituality of the High Middle Ages.
Elsewhere – in the ‘non-Gregorian’ material – the success of this disc is rather more uneven. The ‘spiritual songs’ by Dvořák have always seemed to me to be relatively slight works, and the best efforts of Kaczorowski and the impressive organist Andrzej Szadejko aren’t enough to convince me that my judgement has been wrong hitherto. On the other hand, the combination of Kaczorowski and Szadejko makes a powerful claim for a piece which is new to me (this is a world premiere recording), Bernadetta Matuszczak’s triptych Psalmodium per Voce ed organo. It opens with ‘De profundis’ a setting of the first three lines of the Latin text of what most will recognise as Psalm 130 or (129 in an older system of numbering); this is followed by a setting of ‘Ave maris stella’, a Marian hymn known since the early middle ages. Psalmodium closes with ‘Resurrexit’, some of the words of which are adapted from the text of the ‘Gloria in excelsis Deo’. The theological (and emotional) arc of Matuszczak’s sequence is made clear by just a few phrases from each of its sections (I quote from the translations provided in the CD booklet):
“Out of the depths / I cry to you, O Lord! / O Lord, hear my voice!” (De profundis)
“Hail, O Queen of Heaven enthroned! / Glorious Virgin, joy to thee, / …/ Vouchsafe that I may praise thee / give me strength against thine enemies.” (Ave Maris stella)
“He resurrected! Alleluja / Lord Jesus Christ, only Son of the Father / … /you alone are the Most High, Jesus Christ” (Resurrexit)
I was favourably impressed by such works of Bernadetta Matuszczak as I have previously heard, so I came to Psalmodium with high expectations – which were far from being disappointed. Psalmodium does not appear in such lists of Matuszczak’s works as I have been able to consult, from which I deduce, somewhat tentatively, that it is a relatively recent work (no information as to the date of its composition is given in the documentation of Ad Fontes). Kaczorowski and Szadejko give a fully committed performance – there is no doubting their belief in the work. From the depths of the organ writing which opens ‘De profundis’ to the repeated and exultant Hallelujahs in ‘Resurrexit’, Psalmodium charts a convincing spiritual journey, both personal and, as it were, archetypal. Along that journey one finds oneself admiring both the anguished hope of ‘De profundis’ and the relative serenity of ‘Ave maris stella’, as well as the ardent celebration of ‘Resurrexit’. Sacred music can often feel like the relatively impersonal work of an accomplished musical craftsman; but this very definitely feels like a personal religious affirmation by the composer, articulated (and surely endorsed) by the two performers on this recording. This ‘Sacred’ music has a profoundly felt sense of the sacred.
That leaves the three pieces by Stanisław Moniuszko. Moniuszko seems never to have received due praise beyond his native Poland or, indeed, the frequency of performance, that his achievement as a composer merits. At his best, he seems to me to rank with all but the very greatest amongst his contemporaries. As Robert Kaczorowski observes in his booklet note, these are “fairly unknown and rarely performed works”. But they deserve better. Without making any hyperbolic claims for them, I suspect that his ‘Agnus Dei’, ‘Ad te, Domine’ and ‘Sub tuum praesidium’ would be enough to encourage those unfamiliar with Moniuszko’s music to seek out more of it. Moniuszko is generally at his best when writing for the voice, whether in his operas, his choral works, or his many Polish songs. Here, too, the writing for the voice is beautifully judged and sympathetic. Robert Kaczorowski, accompanied this time by pianist Anna Mikolon, proves a fine advocate for these three pieces.
No single CD could hope to demonstrate how Gregorian Chant has been one of the major ‘font’ or sources of European music; such an undertaking would require many more CDs and more diverse music. The best that Kaczorowski can do on this one CD - and he does it well - is to offer some relevant ‘snapshots’ and invite the listener to make some connections. For me, Gregorian echoes are more evident in some places (e.g. the works by Moniuszko and Matuszczak) than others (the pieces by Dvořák) but there is much to enjoy and admire in Kaczorowski’s vocal work (not least in the Gregorian Chant) and his two accompanists are clearly very accomplished musicians. So even if Father Kaczorowski doesn’t (understandably) wholly justify his ‘thesis’, the result is a CD which should please all who have a serious interest in Christian music.
Contents GREGORIAN CHANT
1.Exsultet [14:12] Antonín DVOŘÂK (1841-1904)
Three Spiritual Songs:
2.Ave Maria, Op.19b [3:40]
3.Hymnus ad laudes in festo SS Trinitatis [2:30]
4.Ave Maris Stella, Op.19b [4:40] GREGORIAN CHANT
5.Caelestis aulae Nuntius [4:10] Stanisław MONIUSZKO (1819-1872)
6.Agnus Dei [2:55]
7.Ad te, Domine [2:40]
8.Sub tuum praesidium [3:58] GREGORIAN CHANT
9.Stabat mater dolorosa [8:23] Bernadetta MATUSZCAK (b. 1937) Psalmodium per Voce ed Organo:
10.De profundis [5:22]
11.Ave maris stella [5:20]
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