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Paweł ŁUKASZEWSKI (b 1968)
Symphony No. 3 ‘Symphony of Angels’ for soprano, mixed choir and orchestra (2010) [26:05]
Symphony No. 6 ‘Song of Eternal Life’ for choir and orchestra (2020) [23:06]
Anna Mikołajczyk-Niewiedział (soprano), Podlasie Opera and Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra/Mirosław Jacek Błaszczyk
rec. June-July 2021, Concert Hall, Stanisław Moniuszko Podlasie Opera and Philharmonic – European Art Centre, Białystok, Poland
Texts and translations included DUX 1762 [49:30]
Some indication of the attention Paweł Łukaszewski’s sacred choral music has attracted over the last couple of decades can be gleaned by its presence on labels beyond his native Poland; Hyperion have taken a punt on him and released a couple of fine discs (Stephen Layton’s reading of his Via Crucis is especially noteworthy - review) whilst a couple of years back Signum released a recital entitled Daylight Declines, an anthology of sacred and secular works sensitively performed by Tenebrae under Nigel Short - review. For my own part I have hitherto found Lukaszewski’s piquant spin on homophony (In her detailed booklet note Renata Borowiecka describes his style as “novelty rooted in tradition”) to be both more enticing and less predictable than the work of his recently deceased compatriots Henryk Górecki and Krzysztof Penderecki, so I was eager to see how his approach to vocal symphonic writing compared to that of his older peers. I found the evidence provided by these two recent examples to be strangely inconclusive.
Łukaszewski’s Symphony No 3,Symphony of Angels for soprano, chorus and orchestra was premiered in Riga in 2012. It involves an eclectic text, derived from a variety of extra-biblical sources. Borowiecka attempts to unravel its significance and refers to an emphasis on ”…the angelic hierarchy and the functions performed by angels”. Its meaning seems to oscillate between the universal and (in the composer’s dedication in the score ‘To my Guardian Angel’) the personal. The symphony incorporates two contrasting movements of equal duration. The initial sound the listener perceives in the first (entitled The Vision of Enoch) is a serene orchestral chord, coloured by harp, celesta and the singular timbre of Chinese qigong balls (a twinkling continuum which recurs intermittently during the work), with whispered spoken interjections (a plea to the Guardian Angel) from the choir. After a brief hiatus, the combined choral and orchestral forces are unleashed most powerfully; Łukaszewski has crafted an extended episode here which is thrillingly immersive and unexpectedly dissonant – it’s crowned by a tam-tam crash which duly subsides into a gloriously quiet, shimmering passage tinged by washes of rippling harp and tuned percussion. The four note motif sung by sopranos at its core will return later in the piece. Łukaszewski’s handling of his resources is mightily impressive – the rather modal harmonic shifts he effects certainly moved this listener. The movement at times communicates a searing, almost overwhelming ecstasy.
The second panel, Existunt Angeli starts in a more measured fashion and incorporates a soprano solo (Anna Mikołajczyk-Niewiedział’s bell-like clarity seems ideal in this music). In due course insistent tubular bells and the return of the (seemingly enormous) choir pre-empt an increase in fervour. Łukaszewski certainly knows how to create a big impact; when the qigong balls return towards the conclusion, floating above a static string chord and the syllabic whisperings of the choir the effect is like balm for the ears. The final bars radiate ethereal calm. It’s an apt conclusion to one of the most memorable, rewarding Polish symphonies I have encountered since the turn of the millennium. The engagement of the performers is palpable, whilst the Dux engineers have somehow managed to keep Łukaszewski’s occasionally gargantuan climaxes reined in.
I would advise listeners to hit the pause button here as the gap between the two works is all too brief and the opening of the next work might well seem a little jarring. Renata Borowiecka states that this account of Łukaszewski’s Symphony No 6,Song of Eternal Life is actually “its first registration” and points out that it hasn’t yet been premiered in concert (one imagines the global pandemic might have been one reason for this). The work incorporates an unusual structure which nonetheless seems perfectly logical on paper. It begins and ends with a tiny orchestral prelude and postlude, each designated Chronos, which refers to time as characterised by its sequential nature. These are rhythmically invigorating, increasingly dissonant and ultimately dizzying orchestral ‘explosions’ which act as bookends (the second Chronos proves to be a mirror image of the first) enveloping a 22 minute central panel entitled Kairos, a contrasting conception of time as lived, spiritual experience. The first half of this uncompromising edifice is a continually ascending homophonic sequence of orchestral chords, which very slowly increase in intensity, volume, speed and colour. This high-risk strategy seems similar to that adopted by Górecki during the opening movement of his still ubiquitous Symphony No 3 Symphony of Sorrowful Songs – its success as a listening experience might ultimately depend on where the listener ‘is’ in a spiritual sense. Whilst I fought hard to listen with humility and open-mindedness I’m afraid I felt that the eleven minutes which had elapsed seemed much longer. In the second half of the movement, the introduction of the choir and a slightly more varied orchestral palette affords a more comfortable listening experience as the chords eventually turn back on themselves and begin their descent, until the not unwelcome intervention of the final Chronos. Whilst the performance and recording of this austere work are perfectly decent I’m afraid I found this symphony, notwithstanding the excitement of its all too brief outer panels, to be the polar opposite of its coupling; an example of a work which seems architecturally elegant on paper but proves to be spiritually and sonically unsatisfying (to my ears at least) in practice.
The Dux engineers have performed little miracles in realising the extremes of volume featured in both these symphonies with such fidelity. In the Symphony No 3, the sheer density of sound produced by an orchestra bolstered with domineering percussion, a soaring solo soprano as well as an enormous choir projecting both dynamic extremes emerges surprisingly unscathed, with each texture unerringly and pleasingly revealed in an acoustic which seems warmly resonant rather than confusingly cavernous. The members of the little-known Podlasie Opera and Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra under the assured baton of Mirosław Jacek Błaszczyk seem entirely comfortable with Łukaszewski’s contrasting idioms and messages. Whilst I didn’t respond nearly as positively to the later symphony as I did to its coupling, I have little doubt there will be several listeners who prove to be more sympathetic to its mysteries. My curiosity has certainly been piqued; I shall urgently be seeking out this composer’s first two symphonies (both recorded by Dux, the first in DVD form).