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Roman PADLEWSKI (1915-1944)
Stabat Mater, for mixed choir a cappella (1939) [18:29]
Joanna WNUK-NAZAROWA (b. 1949)
Planctus, for mixed choir and chamber ensemble (2011) [9:13]
Psalmy przyszłości? (Psalms of the Future?) for mixed choir (2009) [20:52]
Katowice City Singers’ Ensemble “Camerata Silesia”
Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra, Katowice/Anna Szostak
rec. 2019, Church of Our Lady of Częstochowa, Katowice-Podlesie; Chamber Hall of the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra in Katowice, Poland
Polish texts provided for Psalms of the Future
DUX 7610 [48:51]

Far too many twentieth century composers met tragic ends through their participation in conflict or consequent internment. Whilst George Butterworth, Albéric Magnard, Jehan Alain and Rudi Stephan fall into the first category as casualties of the First World War, there are any number of Jewish composers who perished in the unimaginable misery of Nazi concentration camps during the Second. Many of these have become more familiar to us as the years have passed; if Pavel Haas, Gideon Klein, Krasa, and Schulhoff happen to be the first four to come into my head, in geographical terms each of them was Czech. The story of one Polish composer, Roman Padlewski is much less widely known but demands the widest currency, not least because the two pieces of his that I have come to know in the course of my research for the present review are both extremely fine. I had never heard of him prior to receiving this disc. His tragic, yet inspiring story is told in the Dux booklet. His mother was a piano professor, so music was in his blood. Roman trained in his native Poznań as a pianist, violinist, composer and musicologist. He led the Karol Szymanowski Choir and contributed music criticism to the Polish press. As a counterpoint to this, we are told that Padlewski also possessed the idealism of his forbears and served as a fighter in various revolutionary groups. Having escaped from a group of POWs, he headed for Warsaw, helped to establish a number of secret musical societies, performed in underground concerts and ultimately participated in the Warsaw uprising. He was killed while engaged in defusing a mobile explosive device in August 1944 at the age of 29 (a fate coincidentally he shares with my own uncle who met his demise in the aftermath of the Coventry blitz). Padlewski inevitably left little music behind but this unaccompanied setting of the Stabat Mater, is a perfectly formed masterpiece and I am aghast that it is not far better known. The same applies to Padlewski’s String Quartet No 2 (this features in a superb account by the Silesian Quartet on the CD ‘Poland Abroad – Volume 3’, on EDA 34).

Padlewski adopted a tripartite structure for his Stabat Mater, which he composed in 1939 and poignantly dedicated to his own mother. The opening section is both austere and graceful in its projection of the narrative. Long held sustained notes and harmonies (especially in the upper parts) elicit unexpectedly rapturous resolutions. The gracefully static opening section yields to greater rhythmic fluidity and momentum in the second part (from Eia Mater). This emerges with a consolatory, rocking pulse. The initial melodic and harmonic ideas return toward the end of the third part in a livelier, but recognisable form. This concluding panel balances mobility and solemnity most convincingly; its modal character gets close to Szymanowski, but in holistic terms Padlewski’s work conveys a purity which arguably exceeds that found in his more renowned compatriot’s orchestrally accompanied setting. To my ears this Stabat Mater seems closer in style to the choral music of Maurice Durufle or Frank Martin and is possibly even more affecting in its simplicity and sincerity than the former’s Requiem or the latter’s Mass. The female voices unsurprisingly dominate the work, whilst the men contribute bass pedals and pleasing dark coloration. At key expressive moments, the straightforward four-part writing occasionally gives way to more complex part writing. The last couple of minutes imply both rapture and acceptance, whilst the thrice repeated chord at its conclusion is deeply moving. Padlewski’s Stabat Mater is a truly lovely piece – a real find. Anna Szostak’s Camerata Silesia give a superb account which exudes careful preparation – tuning seems immaculate while the recording is balanced ideally, helped by the splendid acoustic of the Church of Our Lady of Częstochowa.

The break before the next piece is too brief. The harpsichord ostinato which instigates Joanna Wnuk-Nazarowa’s Planctus for mixed choir and chamber ensemble is rather jarring. Planctus was conceived as a memorial to the many senior Polish politicians and officials who lost their lives when a plane carrying them to memorial events marking the 70th anniversary of the Katyn Massacre crashed near Smolensk in 2011. The brief text incorporates a plea which translates as ‘O Don’t Forget Me’, and a response ‘How can one forget about you?’ which is repeated 96 times (the number of victims in the crash). Harpsichord, harp, and bass form an ostinato texture, with violin, oboe and horn entering the fray in due course. A solo soprano delivers the plea – other voices enter one by one. There are real problems of balance here which the Dux engineers have frankly not solved. The instrumental textures seem to swamp the voices throughout the work, to the detriment of both. The listener only experiences equilibrium when the choral texture emerges from the accumulating solo voices. The impact of what seems on paper to be a novel and intriguing In Memoriam is massively compromised by the rather boomy sound. In any case listeners are likely to struggle in deciphering both the letter and the spirit of Planctus, which tellingly was the only work on the disc to have been recorded in the Chamber Hall of the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra in Katowice.

Joanna Wnuk-Nazarowa’s also composed the final piece on the disc, Psalmy przyszłości? (Psalms of the Future?), to texts by Zygmunt Krasinski (1812-1859), whose writings contributed to the rise in Polish national consciousness around the middle of the nineteenth century. The texts themselves communicate Krasiński’s hopes for a more confident, proactive future for his homeland. In the opening Psalm of Faith Wnuk-Nazarowa’s language melds modernism, modality, pliant rhythms and piquant harmonies. Conventional singing alternates with chant and declamation. The choir rise splendidly to these considerable challenges and seem to revel in the grateful writing. Their accomplished ensemble is also evident in the subsequent Psalm of Hope in which pointed silences punctuate sophisticated, consonant harmony. Dissonance is more to the fore in the more flexible, extended phrases of the Psalm of Love. Any difficulties in maintaining steady intonation here are easily overcome by this superbly prepared group. A folksy accordion turns up during this psalm, quoting from Moniuszko’s opera The Haunted Manor before the movement evaporates gnomically. The brief Psalm of Sorrow is gentler, its dissonances melting away ethereally before a final Psalm of Good Faith incorporates loud whispering, unison passages, speech and complex polyphony. The cogency of this finale is utterly dependent on its distinctive rhythmic profile. The dying away at its end is beautifully realised by Szostak and her fine group. It must be admitted that whilst the sounds per se of Wnuk-Nazarowa’s Psalms of the Future? are colourful and expertly blended the cycle will be incomprehensible to those not fluent in Polish. I would argue that the lack of translations in the booklet is critical – this work surely lives or dies via one’s grasp of the text.

Frustratingly it’s rather typical of Dux that the impact so much good music is undone or compromised by strange packaging or production decisions. The peculiar translations of the original Polish notes are naively charming rather than irritating, but the complete absence of an English text for Krasiński’s poems seems inexcusable. I urge anyone who’s seriously interested in Polish music to hear Roman Padlewski’s Stabat Mater; it’s just disappointing that I am unable to provide an unqualified recommendation for this disc.

Richard Hanlon

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