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Józef KROGULSKI (1815-1842)
Sacred Music 1
Hanna Zajączkiewicz (soprano); Donata Zuliani (mezzo-soprano); Marcin Pomykała (tenor); Robert Kaczorowski (baritone)
Michał Kaleta (organ)
rec. August/September 2021, Kościół św. Mikołaja w Szemudzie, Poland
World Premiere Recording

Anyone who is familiar with the Acte Préalable label will know that it comprises over 500 CDs, dedicated to the wealth of lesser-known or completely-forgotten composers, largely, though not exclusively, of Polish origin – the brainchild of Jan A. Jarnicki, who founded it back in 1997.

This particular new release represents something of a milestone, as Jarnicki explains, in the preface. Here he explains that he was contacted back in 2013 by priest and musician, Father Robert Kaczorowski, with a view to undertaking a recording of music of the completely-forgotten composer, Otton Mieczysław Żukowski. Nine years on and there are now some ten CDs available, featuring Zukowski’s music, since the idea was exactly why the label had been set up, sixteen years earlier. At the time, though, Jarnicki never envisaged that so much would have blossomed from that initial collaboration.

Father Kaczorowski, who is also the baritone soloist on the CD, outlines how it all came to fruition. He had been familiar with Krogulski’s works for some time, but, like so many things over the last couple of years, plans to record anything sooner were thwarted by the Covid pandemic, especially performances of vocal music. This has eventually resulted in the use of four soloists and organ accompaniment, rather than choir and orchestra, which was probably more Krogulski’s intention at the time.

Father Kaczorowski fills in some details about the composer – a contemporary of Chopin, but who probably never took formal piano lessons, quite possibly having been taught by his father. However, in terms of composition, Krogulski did have classes at Warsaw’s General Music School, where he studied with such eminent teachers at the time, as Karol Kurpiński and Józef Elsner. He was really seen more as a ‘promising pianist’, and was often referred to either as the ‘Polish Mozart’, or the ‘Young Liszt’. After a few months in Germany, during which he gave numerous concerts, he was already being described as a ‘prodigy’.

Due to a combination of his, and his mother’s poor health, as well as the beginning of the November Uprising in 1830, he took a break from performing for almost two years. He returned to the concert platform in 1832, though without his earlier passion, and, from then on, gave piano lessons, took church choirs, continued conducting and composing, until his untimely death at the tender age of 27. Despite his short life – even Chopin was 39 when he passed – Krogulski was a most prolific composer and left behind a wealth of orchestral, chamber, and vocal works, both sacred and secular.

This new release opens with the Hymn ‘In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit’, and its main theme sounds vaguely like a combination of Bach’s Nun danket alle Gott and Praetorius’s Es ist ein Ros' entsprungen, all in a quasi-Haydn/Mozart mix. It is cast in strophic form, combining all four voices together, mainly in harmony though occasionally in unison, or in combination with solo passages. There is a little audible rumble in the play-in, prior to the start, and which can be detected elsewhere on the CD. This, I was informed, emanates from the organ itself, and, while you might notice it initially, the brain has the ability to mask extraneous sounds fairly quickly. The tenor and baritone are heard first, and both voices manifest the deep, full-bodied sound, characteristic of the Slavic male voice. I do, however, feel that the tenor is more a second-tenor than a true top tenor, as occasionally he sounds just a tad compromised at the top of the range, even though this doesn’t detract to any significant degree.

This is followed by Krogulski’s Third Mass in C, ‘On the steps of Thy throne we fall’, one of ten he wrote in total, and where the tenor is rested. There are some attractive melodies and charming singing to be heard throughout all nine movements, where the composer mainly follows the plan of combining the two female voices, usually singing a third or sixth apart, supported unfalteringly by the baritone below. Here, the contribution from mezzo-soprano, Donata Zuliani, proves equally effective, by ensuring that her essentially harmonizing-role doesn’t compromise the critical polarity of the two outer parts, by an insensitive use of shared dynamics.

According to Father Kaczorowski, the Hymn ‘Of supplication to the Mother of God’ is the only piece in Latin, although it is still sung in Polish on the CD. All four soloists are involved, and it is a really moving piece, full of heartfelt sincerity, in a style that seems almost to be an amalgam of Mozart and Mendelssohn, in their more contemplative moments.

Krogulski’s eight-movement First Mass in F is next on the agenda and initially provided the source of some little mirth, unintentionally, of course. In the main track-list, its Polish subtitle is translated as ‘With the sound of grateful froth’. However, Robert Kaczorowski suggests a different translation, when he refers to it in the main body of the text as ‘With the sound of grateful stumps’ – certainly a different ball-game, but clearly still not what the original Polish surely implied. However, a quick email to Warsaw, and all was swiftly resolved. Apparently the troublesome word is old Polish, and has a different meaning altogether, so the definitive translation of the subtitle should read ‘With the sound of grateful singing’ – far more appropriate under the circumstances. It does, though, still highlight the very real problem of having a foreign text translated into English, by someone for whom it’s not their native language. On this occasion, there are just two soloists – mezzo-soprano and tenor – and this provides a far better stage for these two singers respectively, than the previous C-major Mass, where they did seem somewhat overshadowed by their soprano and baritone co-performers.

Next comes the Graduale in G major for three voices, Justus ut palma, ‘The righteous flourish like the palm tree’, which uses the thirteenth and fourteenth verses of Psalm 92, and was composed around 1838. This follows the design of the Third Mass, where the two female voices weave their mellifluous passage-work above the baritone – once again decidedly pleasing on the ear.

There is just enough time to fit in a Christmas Carol, before the final Mass in D – ‘Hey, brothers, so you are sleeping’. This is suitably pastoral in concept, enhanced by the mazurka-like triple-beat setting. There is simply a single full-organ ‘call to attention’, before the tenor trumpets the bright and breezy little tune.

The closing Second Mass in D, ‘On the steps of Thy throne we fall’, was written in 1840, and involves all four soloists in its seven-movement design. In all three Masses performed here, some of the individual movements can seem quite similar to each other, and it would be fair to say that, in comparable works by Haydn, Mozart, or Schubert, the movements assume a more specific, and recognisable character. In Krogulski’s case, there are still another seven Masses to audition, and his total output of ten had been written during an exceptionally-short life-span. But even in the three Masses on the CD, there is sufficient variety of timbre and texture to keep the listener engaged, and, specifically here in the Second Mass, the introduction of a faster section in triple time in the Sanctus, the key change to G for the Benedictus, with its especially-attractive writing for soprano, and turning to the tonic minor (D) for the Agnus Dei, all succeed in adding further contrast. Krogulski also adds a second Benedykcyją at the end, with its slightly-extended ‘Amen’, or Plagal Cadence, to round everything off in a mood of peace and tranquillity – a perfect conclusion to some twenty minutes of pure contemplation and relaxation for the listener.

At the outset, I was eager to get to hear this CD, not for any specific religious reason, but simply because I first came to hear some of Krogulski’s chamber music, and works for piano and orchestra, and really enjoyed it – factor in an over-arching interest in Polish Classical Music, and the rest is history.

I have very much enjoyed my introduction to the composer’s sacred music, and am now looking forward to the next issue(s) in due course. All four soloists do a sterling job overall, particularly Hanna Zajączkiewicz (soprano) and Robert Kaczorowski (baritone), and, of course, there is another ‘unsung-hero’ in the shape of organist Michał Kaleta (organ), who supports his soloists with great empathy, and concern for the overall balance between voices and organ. The church’s reverberation-time felt comfortable, and once again the recording has captured everything with true fidelity. In the final analysis, I would say that the CD sound still faithfully presents Krogulski’s music in the manner he intended – written to be heard and performed, first-and-foremost, in any Parish Church throughout Poland at the time, provincial or otherwise.

Of course, it’s very much a niche work, but in these demanding times, I did find it a most pleasant antidote to the stresses of the day, by simply letting the music gently waft over me.

Philip R Buttall
Hymn: W imię Ojca i Syna i Ducha Świętego (Hymn: In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit) [5:41]
Msza C-dur: Na stopniach Twego upadamy tronu (Mass in C major: On the steps of Thy throne we fall) [22:04]
Hymn: błagalny do Matki Boga, Op. 16 (Hymn: of supplication to the Mother of God) [3:28]
Msza F-dur: Z odgłosem wdzięcznych pieni (Mass in F major: With the sound of grateful singing) [20:11]
Graduale in G major [3:45]
Kolęda: Hej, bracia, czyli śpicie (Carol: Hey, brothers, so you are sleeping) [3:15]
Msza D-dur: Na stopniach Twego upadamy tronu (On the steps of Thy throne we fall) [19:15]

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