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Midnight Stories: Contemporary Music by Polish Composers
rec. Church of the Annunciation of the Lord, Żarnoviec, Poland, dates not given
DUX 1607 [48:15]

Art’n’Voices is a vocal ensemble of eight singers based in the Gdańsk region of Poland. Each member is clearly blessed with a voice of exceptional beauty, leading to ensemble singing of ravishing richness and depth of tone. It does not stop there, however, as the group’s technical standard is extremely high, and that in contemporary works that require not only spot-on intonation but also intense musicality.

The programme is constructed around the theme of night. It will be of interest to any choral music enthusiast who also wants to investigate the contemporary scene. And for any fan of Polish music, the disc becomes a must. The group has been well recorded in a fairly reverberant acoustic. The booklet contains all texts as sung, with translations where appropriate. There is a short biography of most of the featured composers, though some of the technical details, always difficult to translate satisfactorily, are a little indigestible. Between the English and the Polish sections of the booklet finding your way around can be rather challenging.

The first piece on the disc, Peace, is a setting in the original English of a three-verse love poem by Sara Teasdale. The music is homophonic and tonal, with extensive and sensitive use of diatonic dissonance such as we find in much contemporary choral music and which is a characteristic of most of the music in this collection. Whilst eschewing any obvious direct link between the music and particular details in the text, there is frequent use of quite striking harmonies as well as a memorable soprano line. The other work by Michał Ziółkowski, Evening Star, is also a setting of an English text, by Edgar Allan Poe, and uses similar techniques, including wordless humming at the close. Both pieces are very attractive.

You have to read the whole booklet to find the name of the person who directs the ensemble. Anna Rocławska-Musiałczyk, one of the two altos, is described simply as ‘the ensemble’s leader’. She is also the composer of three works. The first, Paraphrase, begins as though it is to be a straightforward if sophisticated arrangement of a traditional carol, but the treatment becomes much freer, and hardly a lullaby, though the whispering and vocal slides with which it ends would help any child go to sleep. Whilst the second, a setting of an English text by Marta Jundziłł, has a few sung moments towards the end, the rest is made up of rhythmic chanting in eight parts, effective in its own way and a valid response to the text. Special effects – whispering, slides, breathing sounds, whistling – are also to the fore in Rocławska-Musiałczyk’s arrangement – the booklet gives little information about the original – of Rosemary’s Baby, a setting of a text that is ostensibly another lullaby but which promises a cruel and discouraging world to the infant in question. The sounds dreamed up by Rocławska-Musiałczyk ravish the ear.

The Ackerman Steppe by Szymon Godziemba-Trytek is a setting of four lines of original Polish text in an English translation. A traveller is anxious about arriving at the destination, a mood expressed by constant text repetition and close imitation. The radiant major chord at the close suggests that all finishes well. Marek Raczyński’s Te lucis ante terminum is among the most harmonically adventurous of these pieces, and its central climax, appropriately placed according to the sense of the text – is engineered by means of vocal improvisation. Michał Malec reserves quite a few harmonic surprises for the listener too, unsurprisingly in his gloomy updating of the bloodier aspects of the Macbeth story. Curiously, the booklet note seems almost to be apologising: ‘… the composer managed not to fall into dissonant and textural extremes.’ Not quite the longest piece in the collection, it is highly effective in its evocation of fearful mystery and foreboding. It boasts an abrupt and highly effective ending.

Whereas the other works in this programme have exploited dissonance within a firm tonal landscape, Kamil Cieślik’s In Danzig has only intermittent forays into tonality. Eichendorf’s poem, set in the original German, is a misty, nocturnal portrait of Gdańsk. Cieślik’s setting is a curious one. The opening and closing wordless vocalising recreates successfully the atmosphere of the poem, but the homophonic, strictly rhythmic treatment of the text rather seems to miss the mark.

There are some extremely beautiful sounds in Jakub Szafrański’s I Dreamt a Dream, a setting in English of a youth-to-wisdom poem by William Blake. The composer will surely have experimented widely in order to find the final chord that allows him to avoid a simple major or minor key close. Whether or not the vocal slides employed whenever the dream is mentioned is an effective musical analogy to Blake’s imagery is another question, but the piece can be appreciated on first hearing and rewards the listener on subsequent hearings too. Zuzanna Falkowska has also found a striking chord on which to close A Lullaby for the Night, one that is tonally based and rather bluesy. The music is homophonic, the melodic lines harmonised with extreme richness, creating a texture that conveys well enough the idea that even night herself needs to be sung to sleep.

Curiously billed as a ‘Bonus track’ – and that in a programme of only 50 minutes – comes Paweł Łukaszewski’s Happy Night. Łukaszewski’s will be the best-known name – perhaps the only known name – to many readers. The Polish text is not, despite its title, without traces of bitterness, but the music is sweet and fits well in the programme. And while we are on the subject of endings, it closes with a delicious slide up to a major seventh chord, a nice way to end a most enjoyable recital.

William Hedley


Michał ZIÓŁKOWSKI (b. 1991)
Peace (2018) [2:49]
Paraphrase of the Kashubian Christmas carol by Witosława Frankowskiej, ‘Sleep, Son, Sleep’ (2014) [5:05]
The Ackerman Steppe (2019) [5:17]
Te lucis ante terminum (2018) [4:35]
Michał MALEC
Ballada (2019) [6:13]
In Danzig (2019) [3:17]
Rosemary´s Baby (2019) [6:45]
Evening Star (2013) [4:03]
The midnight song (2019) [2:06]
I Dreamt a Dream (2019) [4:17]
A Lullaby for the Night (2019) [3:21]
Happy Night (1985 rev. 2010) [2:36]

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