It sometimes seems like Poland has its own, peculiarly national, hotline to God. Why this should be, beyond the fact that it produces the occasional pope, is more a question for historians than music critics. But the Poles are undeniably and overwhelmingly devout, and it’s reflected in their music, which leans heavily these days toward the spiritual.
Their sacred choral music claims a certain prominence now – rivalling the fashionably meditative choral works that pour out of the Baltic states – and it’s just had a major British platform in a festival organised by the Adam Mickiewicz Institute, Poland’s equivalent of our British Council. Called Joy & Devotion, it featured concerts at London’s St Martin-in-the-Fields.
And the interesting thing is that they were sung not by Polish choirs but by a select group of British ones: elite professional ensembles like the Gesualdo Six, Tenebrae and Echo, who were spared persistent struggle with piled-high Polish consonants because the repertoire was largely in Latin, but nonetheless managed well enough when required.
Most of the composers featured in these programmes would be barely known to English audiences, with names such as Mieczysław Surzyński (early 20th century) or Anna Rocławska-Musiałczyk (born 1987) that don’t trip off the tongue. But they’re responsible for music that rewards investigation because it’s direct, emotionally strong and has liturgical potential.
The best of the programmes I heard was given by Tenebrae, who rank at the very top of the UK vocal league, with an impactful, focused sound of such dimension that it hit you like a perfectly aimed punch between the eyes. And much of what they sang was of the slow, spare, monumental nature that seems to permeate Polish choral writing through the ages, from the heavy tread of Marcin Leopolita’s 16th-century Missa paschalis to the ardent minimalism of Henryk Górecki’s Totus Tuus (now a Classic FM favourite but originally written for a state visit to Poland by John Paul II).
They did it all so handsomely that Echo, the young group who sang the following night, were outclassed by comparison. But that said, Echo made a good case for the ear-worm beauty of works by Ms Rocławska-Musiałczyk and the ritualised boldness of Roxanna Panufnik (born in Britain to the composer Andrzej Panufnik, so she counts as Polish).
Anybody curious about this repertoire and wanting to pursue it will find plenty on CD, and a good place to start would be the music of Paweł Łukaszewski who curated the Joy & Devotion festival and has been championed on UK record labels such as Hyperion and Signum. It’s intense, impressive, earning him a place alongside British counterparts such as James MacMillan who have done great service to the cause of sacred choral music in our own time. Not so long ago it looked like an endangered species, disappearing from the modern compositional agenda. But that’s changed. With no small thanks to what’s been happening in Poland.
Choral singing took a huge hit from the Covid crisis and a lot of the large amateur societies came close to breakdown. But a decent number took the crisis as a challenge and found ways around it, usually through projects online. And their efforts were rewarded last month at the 2021 Royal Philharmonic Society Awards which, for the first time, had a category for amateur ensembles. On the shortlist was a gospel choir, a group on Orkney, and the South Wales Gay Men’s Chorus, but the winner was Bristol Choral Society whose lockdown achievements you can find proudly displayed on YouTube.
In another category, there was a prize for the Sage Gateshead which organised a huge online choral project titled The World How Wide that paired a vocal arrangement of Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis with dramatic images of Britain from the air. It’s fabulous, and still accessible at sagegateshead.com.
This being December, Christmas is in sight. And among the batch of new carol compilation CDs (there’s no shortage) is a curiosity called Strange Wonders which gathers together a second volume of the so-called “Wexford Carols” originally published in 1684 by an Irish priest in exile, Luke Waddinge, Bishop of Ferns. He intended them as a kind of solace for disinherited Irish Catholics like himself, setting his own verse to popular tunes of the day. And though his efforts were enlarged in the early 1700s by another priest, William Devereux, many of the tunes were subsequently lost – until rediscovered by some of the performers on this disc. The music is arranged in different styles from folk to classical, and played by major artists like Stile Antico and Alison Balsom who lend the project gravitas. But the result is charming and evocative.
It’s on a label with the possibly disturbing name of Heresy Records, but no matter. The recording engineer is called Dom Monks. I’d call that quits.
This article first appeared in the December 2021 issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe today.
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