Holst Singers, Temple Church, 8 April 2006

The second of the Holst Singers’ extremely enjoyable concerts of Paweł Łukaszewski’s music was structured around the Polish composer’s Seven Magnificat Antiphons. These were composed between 1995 and 1999, and were designed as individual works. As Saturday’s concert showed, however, they also work well in sequence, the set moving towards the radiantly climactic seventh antiphon, O Emmanuel.

Łukaszewski’s music in these pieces falls in the main into two types – the thick, lustrous harmonies of O Radix Jesse, O Oriens and O Emmanuel – and a more energised style in, for example, O Sapientia and O Adonai. In both cases the music has an internal drive, whether it be through insistent rhythm or keep-em-guessing harmonic inventiveness, that began to set Łukaszewski apart in my mind from the conventional view of Polish choral music – a view almost entirely based on Górecki’s later works. There is much more going on in most of these short pieces than in several of Górecki’s more substantial contributions, even if the trade-off is a certain stylistic bumpiness.

Actually, although the programme included works by composers one might assume were Łukaszewski’s natural companions – Arvo Pärt and John Tavener – I came to think of his music sitting more comfortably with the older, British works on show: Holst’s The Evening Watch and Warlock’s The Full Heart, both staples of the early 20th-century British repertoire. That this became the case was unlikely a testament to the influence of British choral music on recent Polish composition, and more to do with the enduring quality of these pieces, as well as the perceptive ear of conductor Stephen Layton. Where Górecki, Pärt and Tavener may be accused of indulging a little too much in the pleasure of a single sonority, Łukaszewski prefers to partake of a richer banquet.

None of which is to detract from the Tavener (Mother of God, here I Stand and the world-famous Song for Athene) and Pärt (Nunc dimittis) that was on show. Song for Athene is well-known from its use as the recessional music at Princess Diana’s funeral, but it’s no less a corking piece for that. A prime cut of Tavener in full-on Greek Orthodox squelch. Mother of God is a little different. Extracted from the dusk-til-dawn marathon The Veil of the Temple (which the Holst Singers premièred in this venue in 2003) it marks the climactic ‘peak of intensity’ of this colossal work. In isolation it’s straightforward, verging on the bland, with few of Tavener’s trademark modal astringencies; but it is enough to make one imagine that like a glass of clear water it would be pretty bloody amazing at the end of an epic all-night Orthodox chant bender.

Pärt’s piece here, Nunc dimittis, was probably the least familiar to me, and concluded the concert with the most surprises. Written independently of the composer’s Magnificat – a characteristic example of Pärt’s tintinnabuli style – this 2001 piece sees elements of Pärt’s earlier, pre-tintinnabulation work reasserting themselves. The first stanza was built not out of crushed minor scales and arpeggios, but from sustained, isolated pitches that rolled and broke over one another in a manner similar to Solfeggio of 1964. Although the middle section sounded like the Arvo Pärt everyone knows and loves, the final section, with alternating thirds in close imitation reminded me strongly of the opening of another 1964 work, Collage über BACH. In all, a nice example of the many continuities that have underpinned Pärt’s music for more than forty years.


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