Wednesday 9 November 2022

Joy and Devotion: Stephen Layton and Polyphony in seven UK premieres including Paweł Łukaszewski's mass dedicated to Pope John Paul II

Joy and Devotion - Polyphony, Stephen Layton - Church of St Martin in the Fields (Photo courtesy of Adam Mickiewicz Institute)
Joy and Devotion - Polyphony, Stephen Layton
Church of St Martin in the Fields (Photo courtesy of Adam Mickiewicz Institute)
Joy and Devotion: Wojciech Kilar, Michał Ziółkowski, Marcin Łukaszewski, Stanisław Moryto, Miłosz Bembinow, Marian Borkowski, Dariusz Przybylski, Paweł Łukaszewski; Polyphony, Stephen Layton, Rupert Jeffcoat; Church of St Martin in the Fields.
Reviewed 8 November 2022 (★★★★)

Seven UK premieres in this remarkable survey of contemporary Polish sacred music, moving between the profoundly moving, the remarkably intense and the dramatically devotional

Joy & Devotion is a festival celebrating Polish music which is presented by the Adam Mickiewicz Institute (with the support of the Polish Ministry of Culture). Having debuted in 2021, the festival has returned to the church of St Martin in the Fields for a series of concerts this week, under artistic director Paweł Łukaszewski. The festival opened on 8 November 2022, with Stephen Layton conducting Polyphony, with organist Rupert Jeffcoat, in a programme of contemporary Polish music under the title Music for a Polish Pope presenting works inspired by Pope John Paul II and featuring seven UK premieres. There were pieces by Wojciech Kilar (1932-2013), Michał Ziółkowski (born 1991), Marcin Łukaszewski (born 1972), Stanisław Moryto (1947-2018), Miłosz Bembinow (born 1978), Marian Borkowski (born 1934) and Dariusz Przybylski (born 1984), with Paweł Łukaszewski's (born 1968) Missa Sancti Papae Ioannis Pauli Secundi Magni which was written for Pope John Paul II's centenary. Paweł Łukaszewski comes from something of a Polish composition dynasty, his brother is Marcin Łukaszewski and their father was the composer Wojciech Łukaszewski (1936-1978).

The evening presented us with quite a striking age-range of composers and what it seemed to show was that despite the interest in the more avant garde, there was a vein of contemporary classical that ran through Polish music. Perhaps we should remember that most of the music in the concert was designed to be practical, to be sung by a choir in a church and as such there were limitations. Not that the music we heard was simplistic, far from it, there were plenty of complex moments and examples dazzling choral writing, but underneath there was a use of tonality and tonal centres. At times we approached the sacred minimalism of the Baltic school, but this was a different sound world and there were echoes of composers such as John Tavener too. 

We began with Wojciech Kilar's Agnus Dei from his Missa pro pace, a work premiered in 2001 and presented by the Warsaw Philharmonic at the Vatican that year in the presence of Pope John Paul II. It is the sort of work that sounds terrific, not complex but a devil to sing. The men had a single, unvarying chant-like phrase which was repeated ad nauseam, and over this Kilar built a structure, soaring melisma from the upper voices, creating something rather affecting. The mass is for choir and orchestra, so this movement must make a striking contrast. Next came Michał Ziółkowski's Ave maris Stella, a work that had a lovely clarity to it. Ziółkowski used homophony extensively here, but with some nicely spicey harmony, gradually becoming more intense till it worked up to a powerful, piercing climax. Marcin Łukaszewski's Pie Jesu featured a fluid, chant-like melody flowing over held lines, creating moments of real beauty.

There followed the first of two organ pieces, played by Rupert Jeffcoat. Stanisław Moryto's Veni creator began with chant, the line weaving its way round other lines over drones, all high in the organ's register. Based around the constant repetition of figurations, the work developed in intensity and denseness of harmony.

Miłosz Bembinow's Veni Sancte Spiritus (from 2013) was multi-sectional with a clear sense of chant inspiration, yet each section built from different assemblages of motifs so that we had a feeling of constantly changing textures responding to the different lines of the text. Marian Borkowski's Regina caeli (from 1995), began with an intense opening gesture, the notes of the chord widely spaced. The work then used a rather chromatic melody with parallel harmonies, the different sections jump-cutting rather than modulating and the result rather reminded me of some of John Tavener's techniques in his smaller choral works.

The second organ work, Dariusz Przybylski's Kölner Fanfare, was written for a collection celebrating the new organ at Cologne Cathedral installed in 2006. Beginning with a spiky fanfare full of jazzy rhythms, the piece, we had moments of the Veni Creator Spiritus chant which seemed somehow almost out of place.

Paweł Łukaszewski's Missa Sancti Papae Ioannis Pauli Secundi Magni was premiered in 2020 at the Warsaw Philharmonic. The work is in six movements, an Alleluia added to the Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus and Agnus Dei. Though tonal, with harmonies that are often simple and direct, the work avoids a single style and Łukaszewski's concern seems very much to have expressed the words being uttered at the time. Throughout the piece, though we had elements of polyphony, clarity of text seemed to be paramount. The short Kyrie contrasted flowing polyphony with homophony, ending in a somewhat mystical manner. The vigorous Gloria moved between vivid and intimate, always responding to the meaning of the text. The Alleluia featured a simple vocal melody repeated over a varying background, with a central chant section with rich harmonies on the text Tu es Petrus. The Credo featured a fast, quietly intense chordal chanting, really emphasising the important text, with certain key moments highlighted by special treatment, really giving the movement a feeling of a community chanting the Creed together. The warm harmonies of the Sanctus supported a movement where the metre of the music changed according to the text being sung, with a lovely simplicity to the Benedictu. Finally, the Agnus Dei with some wonderfully effective choral writing as musical textures changed and varied, heightening the effect of the music at each repetition of the text until, at the end, it became quiet and intimate with a final, questioning 'Pacem'.

The final work in the programme was Marian Borkowski's Libera me, a work built around the repeated alternation of an intense choral cry and more hushed moments. This was an effective piece, though I had to admit that I found the alternations of loud intensity and quiet more enervating than moving.

The performances from Polyphony, Stephen Layton and Rupert Jeffcoat were all superb, every note of music seemed perfectly placed. Layton and his choir really managed to capture the different atmospheres of the pieces, whilst Jeffcoat dazzled with his organ playing.

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