• Woodworm Don’t Like Your Music

Screen Shot 2015-05-25 at 09.10.32I don’t think I have ever seen such a colourful series of titles for the BBC Radio 3 series Composer of the Week.  Today, and for the rest of this week, it’s the turn of Grażyna Bacewicz, presented by Donald Macleod with me muttering a few words from the wings.  The titles are nothing to do with me, but I hope that they bring in the listeners!

Programmes are broadcast at 12.00 (BST) and repeated at 18.30 (except Fri, when the repeat is at 19.00).

An Unseen Little Engine (Mon 25 May)
A Mood of Determined Resistance (Tues 26 May)
A False Dawn (Wed 27 May)
Opening the Modernist Floodgates (Thurs 28 May)
Woodworm Don’t Like Your Music (Fri 29 May)

Full repertoire details in my earlier post.

• BBC R3: Bacewicz is COTW (25-29.05)

n1877p01At last!  In two weeks’ time, Grażyna Bacewicz (1909-69) will be BBC Radio 3’s Composer of the Week.  Five programmes, each lasting an hour, will be broadcast 25-29 May, at 12 noon and again at 18.30.  Donald Macleod presents, as usual, and I’ll be chipping in with a few comments towards the end of each programme.  I’ve not been involved in the selection of the repertoire.


I’ve just been looking back at coverage of Polish composers on COTW.  Sadly, the BBC webpages (once you’ve learned how to navigate them) are reliable only for the past ten years.  Before that, specific years and dates then become very patchy and there is nothing concrete before 2001 except an alphabetical list of names since the series’ inception in 1943.

Chopin has been well represented over the years, but what of 20th-century Polish composers?  Is it not strange that neither Górecki nor Penderecki has been featured?  (I was asked to contribute to a Górecki week last year, but when I was unavailable for recording the proposal was postponed and I’ve heard nothing since; I hope it will resurface soon.)  If COTW can cover Henze (2005), Ligeti (2009) and Schnittke (2010), why not their near-contemporaries in Poland?  Panufnik was featured in his centenary year (2014), but Lutosławski was passed by in his (2013).  Szymanowski, on the other hand, has been almost over-exposed.  Here is my list, extracted from the COTW webpages (the 2006 slot may be a repeat):

• 2014: Andrzej Panufnik
• 2011: Karol Szymanowski
• 2010: Fryderyk Chopin
• 2008: Fryderyk Chopin
• 2006: Karol Szymanowski
• 2004: Karol Szymanowski

Before Donald Macleod became the voice of COTW, other presenters participated, including myself.  In the 1990s I presented a few weeks and Roxana Panufnik presented one on her father:

• 1998: Karol Szymanowski
• 1993: Andrzej Panufnik (as part of R3’s Polska! festival)
• 1993: Polish Romantics (“) – Karłowicz, Moniuszko, Noskowski, Paderewski, Wieniawski, Zarębski
• 1993: Witold Lutosławski

It seems to me that there is an unanswerable case for Górecki, Penderecki and Lutosławski to be included in future plans for COTW.  They are more than equal to quite a few composers who have been featured in the series over the past ten years.  There are other Polish names too, who might be grouped together if there was insufficient recorded material for them to be treated singly: Kazimierz Serocki, Tadeusz Baird, Wojciech Kilar and Zygmunt Krauze come to mind, or even composers of younger generations.  And there is now much more available on 19th-century Polish music, not to mention the Polish Renaissance and Baroque.  But back, for now, to Bacewicz.


Part of the challenge for a representative coverage of Bacewicz’s music is the lack of recordings of certain periods, although there was a surge of CDs around the centenary of her birth.  This is particularly obvious of the mid-1960s, where works such as Musica sinfonica (1965), Contradizione (1965), In una parte (1967) and the Viola Concerto (1968) have never been issued on CD.  There is, for example, only one recording of the key work Music for Strings, Trumpets and Percussion (1958).  That was made for the Chandos label in 2009, her centenary year.  Once again, when it comes to the recording of Polish music, it is a British company that has taken the lead.  Given the available recorded repertoire, the choice made by COTW presents a good, more-or-less chronological sample of Bacewicz’s music.  I hope it will garner new enthusiasts for her music, especially among performers and promoters.  Here’s the day-by-day list of works that have been selected (movement details tbc):

Monday 25 May
• Sonatina for piano, first movement (1933)
• Violin Sonata no.3 (1948)
Children’s Suite for piano, movements 1-5 (1933)
• Sinfonietta for strings (1936)
• Violin Concerto no.1 (1937)

Tuesday 26 May
• Three Songs (1938)
Three Grotesques for piano (1935)
• Violin Sonata no.1 ‘Sonata da camera’ (1945)
• Violin Concerto no.2, movements 2 and 3 (1945)
• Overture (1943)

Wednesday 27 May
• String Quartet no.3 (1947)
• Violin Sonata no.4 (1949)
• Concerto for String Orchestra (1948)

Thursday 28 May
• String Quartet no.4, first movement (1951)
• Partita for violin and piano (1955)
• Ten Concert Studies for piano, nos 1-3 (1956)
Music for Strings, Trumpets and Percussion (1958)

Friday 29 May
Pensieri notturni for orchestra (1961)
• Piano Quintet no.2, movements 1 and 2 (1965)
• Violin Concerto no.7 (1965)
• Divertimento for strings (1965)

• BBC R3 ‘Polska!’: Brochure & Previews

Screen Shot 2013-11-18 at 20.26.52For its main Polska! image, the BBC chose a still photograph by Eustachy Kossakowski of a 1967 happening by one of Poland’s most exploratory theatre directors, Tadeusz Kantor.  It was taken at Osieki on the north-west Polish coast during ‘A Sea Concert’.  Kossakowski took a number of photos of the event.  Here are a couple, including the one which furnished Polska! with its striking image:

A Sea Concert:1

Tadeusz-Kantor Eustachy Kossakowski Panoramic Sea Happening, Osieki, 1967

Ironically, although it was understandable for practical reasons on radio, Kantor did not feature in the drama coverage of Polska!.  The ‘conductor’ was the Polish artist Edward Krasiński, best known perhaps for his introduction a year later of a wide blue sellotape line that wove its way through his installations.

Here is the complete publicity brochure for the festival.

Polska! brochure cover

Polska! brochure:1

Polska! brochure:2

Polska! brochure:3

Polska! brochure:4

Polska! brochure:5

Early publicity was key.  But there is always one disaffected voice carping from the sidelines, warping both the intention and the actuality.  In this instance, it was Dermot Clinch in his ‘A Critical Guide: Staying In (Friday)’, The Independent on Sunday, 14 November 1993:

Polska! (7.30pm-12.30am R3).  Gone are the days of single programmes based simply on a single idea. It’s theme nights and seasons all the way.  Today, the start of Polish fortnight – and what more beguiling hook than the “75th anniversary of the reconstitution of Poland as an independent state”?  Including: Szymanowski’s String Quartet no.2 (7.45pm) and Lutoslawski’s Fourth Symphony (11.15pm).  And then the big names: Zarebski, Krupowicz, Palester…

The anticipatory response elsewhere was overwhelmingly positive.  Here are six preview pieces (I’ll post reviews later): one by myself, one from the radio critic of The Sunday Times, a short contribution from the senior music critic from The Guardian, plus an interview with me in London’s Dziennik Polski and two pieces from Warsaw’s Gazeta Wyborcza and Rzeczpozpolita.

• Adrian Thomas, ‘Cultural glories of the great survivors’, The Times, 19 November 1993
• Ewa Turska, ‘Sezon polski w BBC’, Rzeczpozpolita, 19 November 1993
• Dorota Szwarcman, ‘Sezon polski w BBC 3’, Gazeta Wyborcza, 19 November 1993
• Paul Donovan, ‘Radio Waves: Poles without politics’, The Sunday Times, 21 November 1993
• Tomasz Walkiewicz, ‘Jestem zauroczony tym krajem’ (interview with Adrian Thomas), Dziennik Polski, 22 November 1993
• Andrew Clements, ‘Diary: Polishing up Radio 3’, The Guardian, 23 November 1993

Polska! Thomas

Polska! Turska

Polska! Szwarcman

Polska! Donovan

Screen Shot 2013-11-21 at 14.25.34

Polska! Clements

• BBC R3 ‘Polska!’: 19 November 1993

Screen Shot 2013-11-18 at 20.26.52Twenty years ago today I was in Warsaw preparing to present my first ever live concert, and I could hardly have chosen a more publicised event.  I was at Studio S1 at Polish Radio, broadcasting to BBC Radio 3 for the opening concert of Polska!, the most extensive celebration of any nation’s culture mounted by a single BBC channel.  For 18 days, from 19 November to 6 December 1993, Radio 3 broadcast over 120 separate programmes involving producers, writers, performers and broadcasters not only from the musical world but many others too: poetry, fiction, drama, art, cabaret, history, cuisine, politics.

In late 1992, I was working as Head of Music at Radio 3.  I was wondering how the station might celebrate the 60th birthdays, at the end of the following year, of Krzysztof Penderecki (23 November) and Henryk Mikołaj Górecki (6 December) as well as mark the 80th birthday of Witold Lutosławski at the start of the 1993.  (Little did we know that Lutosławski had already been diagnosed with cancer as Polska! began and that he would die in February 1994.)  I went to discuss the idea of a festival with the Controller of Radio 3, Nicholas Kenyon, and we quickly realised that we had the resources to organise something really special, involving not only all the BBC orchestras and the BBC Singers but the other departments which contributed to the rich variety of Radio 3’s programming.  If I remember correctly, it was Nicholas Kenyon who came up with the title and he was unreservedly enthusiastic and encouraging.  And so Polska! was born.


Over the next 18 days, I will be posting occasionally about Polska!, its live and recorded music repertoire, its non-musical programmes, the press coverage in the UK and in Poland, and including as many direct images of press reviews etc. as possible.

Although I had left the channel at the end of June 1993, I remained deeply involved in the planning and programming of Polska! and was slated to do some of the presentation, both in Poland and the UK.  Hence my ‘continuity’ presence in Warsaw on 19 November.  A flavour of the musical breadth of the festival may be gathered from that evening’s five-hour opener, ‘Poland Now’ (a second blockbuster came towards the end of the festival).

Homma 1993

The opening evening’s main feature was the live broadcast from Polish Radio 2.  The first half was devoted to chamber music (I was intent on including the then-neglected Zarębski Piano Quintet, which today has a deservedly higher profile), while the second consisted of contemporary vocal repertoire (including Paweł Szymański’s recent Miserere, a commission from Polish Radio).

Polska! Programme 19.11.93

In the interval, for ‘A Musician’s Lot’, I talked with Szymański and two other Polish composers – Rafał Augustyn and Zygmunt Krauze –  as well as to the pianist Paweł Kowalski, to Monika Strugała, one of the organisers of the choral festival Wratislavia Cantans, to Elżbieta Szczepańska, Head of Promotion at the music publisher PWM, and to Andrzej Rakowski, a professor at the Chopin Academy of Music in Warsaw and the author of a recent report on music education in Poland.

In the 45′ profile of Polish political life – still a compelling issue four years after the ‘Round Table’ conference of 1989 had restored a level of democracy to the country – Piotr Kowalczuk was joined by Krzysztof Bobiński (Financial Times), the writer and lawyer Wiktor Osiatyński and Andrzej Wróblewski (Polityka), among others.

A second recent Polish Radio commission followed – Stanisław Krupowicz’s Fin-de-siècle, introduced by the composer and performed by WOSPR (Polish Radio Great SO), conducted by Takao Ukigaya.  For ‘A Composer’s Lot’, I was joined again by Augustyn, Krauze and Szymański, by three other composers, Krupowicz, Hanna Kulenty and Marta Ptaszyńska, and by Grzegorz Michalski from Polish Radio 2 and Elżbieta Szczepańska from PWM.

We were then able to draw on that year’s ‘Warsaw Autumn’ festival when Lutosławski had conducted a complete programme of his own music with the Warsaw PO (it turned out to be his last appearance on the podium in Poland). He talked with me about the Fourth Symphony to introduce the broadcast.  Palester’s Adagio for Strings (1954) was performed by Sinfonia Varsovia under Jan Krenz.

The evening had begun with a specially recorded performance by Piers Lane of Chopin’s Etudes op.10 (virtually all of Chopin’s music was played during Polska! and Lane bookended the festival on 6 December with the Etudes op.25).  It ended with Szymanowski’s Myths and, like every subsequent evening of the festival, the last notes were left to one or more of Szymanowski’s mazurkas.

• Jeux vénitiens: R3’s 50th Modern Classic

I’ve just caught a fine performance of Lutosławski’s Jeux vénitiens (1960-61) on BBC iPlayer (Radio).  It was from last Saturday’s Hear and Now on Radio 3, so it’ll be available for another 96 hours.  For the past year, Hear and Now has been using part of its precious hour and a half each Saturday night to highlight a composer and a work which has brought something new to music in the second half of the 20th-century.  It has been an absorbing series, with many well-known names and pieces passed over in favour of something more radical, curious or forgotten.  You can download the spoken introductions to all 50 ‘modern classics’ here.

At one stage, the producers were thinking of including Górecki’s Symphony no.3 in the roster, but in the end the only Polish piece to make it onto the list was Lutosławski’s Jeux vénitiens.  No, there wasn’t even a space for Penderecki’s Threnody, one of the iconic works from the 1960s.  Ah well.  But Jeux vénitiens is a good example of Polish experimentalism at its height (it’s contemporaneous with the Penderecki).

On the podcast, Esa-Pekka Salonen and Paul Griffiths give succinct comments, mainly on the (then new) aleatory component in his musical language, though its twelve-note harmonic aspect is not neglected.  Curiously, the words ‘aleatory’ and ‘ad libitum’ are mentioned by neither Salonen nor Griffiths (maybe ‘random’ and ‘uncoordinated’ have displaced terms which now may be thought as too unfamiliar).  Equally, ‘twelve-note’ (harmony) is notable by its absence.  It’s a pity, perhaps, that other aspects specific to the piece are given short shrift, or not mentioned at all. There is no reference to how the music develops in any of the movements (brutal intercutting in the first, accelerated superimposition in the fourth), no mention of thematic connections between the first and third movements, no notice given to the way that Lutosławski links the third and fourth movements harmonically.

It is very nice to hear Lutosławski himself talking (he, however, does mention ‘ad libitum’ and ‘aleatoric’), from an interview made with an unheard Thea Musgrave in 1973.  By that time, he had already adopted his defensive posture against being associated closely with Cage (and other ‘more radical’ composers).  He makes his point with some force in this interview, which suggests that he was already somewhat impatient with such links being made on a routine basis by commentators.  His closing comments about the future direction of avant-garde music also make for interesting listening.

The timing of this broadcast is opportune.  Not only does Jeux vénitiens complete the ’50 Modern Classics’ series, but its position looks ahead to 2013 and the centenary of Lutosławski’s birth on 25 January.  I hope he’ll receive a good hearing on Radio 3 next year, as long as Britten, Verdi and Wagner don’t hog the limelight.

• BBC R3 NGAs 2012: A Third Polish Quartet

A third Polish string quartet has become a member of BBC Radio 3’s New Generation Artist scheme.  The appointment of the Apollon Musagète Quartett (2012-14) follows on from the successes of the Karol Szymanowski Quartet (2001-03) and the Royal Quartet (2004-06).  Both the Szymanowski and Royal quartets have since made distinguished careers, although of the three only the Royal Quartet still seems to be based in Poland.

All three quartets are active in the recording studio.  The Royal Quartet’s CD of the three Górecki quartets (2011) has been critically acclaimed, and its follow-up CD of the quartets by Lutosławski and Penderecki is due for release early next year.  Even more imminent is the Szymanowski Quartet’s recording with Jonathan Plowright of Zarębski’s Piano Quintet and Żeleński’s Piano Quartet.  All of these recordings are on Hyperion.

I’ve not been able to find out anything about the Apollon Musagète Quartett prior to its founding in Vienna in 2006, so I don’t know what the players’ Polish roots are.  Its Polish repertoire includes works by core composers – the two Szymanowski quartets, Bacewicz’s First Piano Quintet, Lutosławski’s Quartet, Górecki’s First, Penderecki’s Der unterbrochene Gedanke and Third Quartet – and also a few surprises: Żeleński’s Variations on an Original Theme, and arrangements of a cappella choral pieces by the Renaissance composer Wacław z Szamotuł and of two piano études by Chopin.  The Apollon Musagète Quartett is due to release a CD on the Oehms Classics label next year of quartets by Lutosławski, Górecki and Penderecki.

It would be good to learn of plans by any of these quartets to take up the music of Polish composers of their own generation.  There have already been some interesting collaborations outside the standard chamber-music repertoire.  Perhaps the most intriguing venture by the Apollon Musagète Quartett has been with Tori Amos, touring with her and contributing to the Night of Hunters CD (2011).

Cue not-too-wobbly video of ‘Shattering Sea’ from a tour date at the Manchester Apollo.


• Remembering Andrzej Chłopecki

It came as a shock to hear on Sunday that Andrzej Chłopecki, the Polish writer on contemporary music, had died that day, aged 62.  He was a singular man with multiple attributes.  He was keenly perceptive, wise, staunch, quirky, witty, impish, and never afraid to speak out whenever he came across the shallow or the hollow.  He got into very hot water with the Establishment when he dared to criticise Penderecki’s Piano Concerto after its Polish premiere at the end of the 2002 ‘Warsaw Autumn’ festival.  I admired him hugely for being a real critic.  Above all, he was the most warm-hearted of colleagues and friends.

Others in Poland knew him much better than I did (he published almost exclusively in Polish, although his penetrating CD notes were translated into other languages for non-Polish labels).  And they can verify his enormous contribution to Polish musical life over the past 40 years and more.  He was for many years a key member of the Repertoire Committee of the ‘Warsaw Autumn’ and at the time of his death was the Artistic Director of the biennial ‘Musica Polonica Nova’ festival in Wrocław.

He was a brilliant broadcaster, acute in his thinking and challenging in his debates.  My abiding personal memory is of when we jointly presented the live opening concert of BBC Radio 3’s Polska! festival on 19 November 1993, from the Witold Lutosławski Studio at Polish Radio in Warsaw.  He, however, was in a balcony on the opposite side of the hall, with a clear view of the artists’ entrance (which I could not see) below my balcony seat.  We were supposed to have a shared script and timing.  But Andrzej decided that he had more to say, with the result that I, with no experience of live concert presentation, ended up scrabbling to describe the interior of the hall (in English, across the EBU network) while he continued to improvise on the merits of the programme to Polish listeners, barely one eye on the players waiting below me.  I had no idea how long this was going to last.  Later on, there was a party at someone’s flat (it may even have been his) and, as the photo indicates, there were no hard feelings, though perhaps my expression indicates something along the lines of “You cheeky …!” and his of “Never mind, that’s what you get with me!”.  The cheeky fingers above Andrzej’s head belong to the composer Paweł Szymański.

Andrzej came from the generation whose composers succeeded Górecki, Kilar and Penderecki and brought new blood into Polish music in the late 1970s and 1980s.  Among them was not only Szymański, but also Rafał Augustyn, Eugeniusz Knapik, Stanisław Krupowicz, Andrzej Krzanowski and Aleksander Lasoń.  They came of age during the anti-communist protests of the 1970s and the rise and fall of Solidarity at the turn of the decade.  They were activists through music, and Andrzej paid for this by losing his job at Polish Radio between 1981 and 1991.  Their position has been vindicated by history.

I trawled through my photograph albums today and found a second photo, taken two years later in 1995, at a party held to mark the 25th anniversary (…) of my first visit to Warsaw and the ‘Warsaw Autumn’.  Quite why I’m holding a shotgun – and pointing it at him – is a mystery, but the ever-convivial Andrzej is obligingly filling my glass.  Behind me is Krupowicz, to his right Szymański, and behind/between them my longest-standing Polish friend, Michał Kubicki.  We had a good evening, and no-one got shot.

Andrzej would have wanted those who knew him to have a good wake in his memory.  Like all his friends and colleagues, I’m devastated that he has gone.  A crumb of comfort – which may turn out to be not that small – is that a week before he died he completed a book about Lutosławski which will be published in time to mark his centenary next year.  Thank you Andrzej for everything.

• Early Music Show: Polish playlist

Tomorrow and on Sunday, at 13.00-14.00, BBC Radio 3’s Early Music Show is devoting its attention to Renaissance and Baroque music from Poland.  Saturday’s programme is a CD compilation; Sunday’s is a broadcast of music from a concert given by the Retrospect Ensemble at last year’s Lufthansa Festival in London (I posted on this two weeks ago under Baroque Rocks).  Now that the programme details of the Saturday broadcast are available, I thought I’d pop them up alongside those for Sunday’s.  Both programmes are presented by Lucie Skeaping, with me chipping in with the odd Polish word on the Sunday.

Saturday, 25 February 2012, 13.00-14.00

Johann Adolf Hasse (1699-1783): March of the King of Poland
Wacław z Szamotuł (c.1524-c.1560): Six Polish Songs
Giovanni Anerio (c.1567-1630): Jubilemus in arca Domini Dei
Mikołaj Zieleński (c.1550-c.1616?): Magnificat
Balint Bakfark (1507-76): Czarna krowa (Black Cow)
Matthäus Waissel (c.1540-1602): Polish Dance
Wojciech Długoraj (c.1557/8-after 1619): Fantasia and Chorea polonica
Bartłomiej Pękiel (?-c.1670): ‘O vita ista misera’ from the dialogue Audite mortales 
Franciszek Lilius (c.1600-57): Tua Jesu dilectio
Johann Adolf Hasse: Dance of the King of Poland

The eagle-eyed will have noticed that there are some non-Polish composers here.  Foreign musicians played an important part in Polish culture in the Renaissance and Baroque periods, among them the Italians Luca Marenzio and Marco Scacchi.  Anerio was another.  He spent the last six years of his life as choirmaster to King Sigismund III in Poland.  The Hungarian Bakfark also had strong Polish connections.  Hasse, though German, was musically an Italian and seems to have been almost entirely successful in avoiding Poland and Warsaw when his employer’s court moved there from Dresden.  Waissel, the earliest composer in the programme, was German through and through, with no connection to Poland of which I am aware, so his Polish Dance must have been one of the genre of ‘characteristic national’ pieces that found their way into many lute tablatures in the Renaissance and early Baroque.

The Polish composers – z Szamotuł, Zieleński, Długoraj, Pękiel and Lilius – were key participants in their country’s musical development.  The ‘Six [Religious] Polish Songs’ by z Szamotuł were not envisaged as a collection, but individually are among the most beautiful choral songs of the 16th century.  My favourite is Modlitwa: Już się zmierzcha (Prayer: Dusk Is Falling), which was also one of Górecki’s ‘found’ treasures – he used it in three of his pieces.*  Zieleński’s Magnificat is his crowning glory.  Compared with the little that has survived of the music by other Polish Renaissance and Baroque composers, Zieleński’s surviving output is enormous and the DUX label in Poland has just issued a 6-CD set of his Offertoria et Communiones Totius Anni 1611 (DUX 0864).  The second programme in this Early Music Show Polish weekend has more music by Zieleński.

The music by Długoraj (as well as by Bakfark and Waissel) is for lute.  All three were noted players of their day.  The music of Pękiel is too little known outside Poland, and this programme includes his Advent ‘dialogue’ Audite mortales, based on a paraphrase of the biblical account of the Last Judgment.  Lilius was Pękiel’s predecessor at Wawel Cathedral in Kraków.  He was the son of an Italian musician and his music embodies many of the different styles that came to characterise this era in Polish music.

* In the event, only three of the six songs by z Szamotuł were played (and they didn’t include Modlitwa!).

Sunday, 26 February 2012, 13.00-14.00 (see Baroque Rocks)

Adam Jarzębski (before 1590-after 1648): Canzon quinta
Mikołaj Zieleński (c.1550-c.1616?): Domus mea
Stanisław Sylwester Szarzyński (fl.1692-1713): Iesu spes mea
Adam Jarzębski: Chromatica
Damian Stachowicz (1658-99): Veni consolator
Grzegorz Gerwazy Gorczycki (1665(7?)-1734): Completorium

• Baroque Rocks

I’ve just returned from recording another interview for BBC Radio 3, this time for The Early Music Show.  I almost didn’t make it, as I thought it began an hour later than it did and it took a wild cross-country dash to Radio Devon in Plymouth to get me into the studio only 15 minutes late.  Not 20th-century Polish music this time, but a recording of Polish gems from the Baroque period. I was probably brought in only because I can pronounce the composers’ names …!  It was fun talking with Lucie Skeaping and no doubt the producer Chris Wines will make sense of my bzdura (gobbledegook).

I am constantly amazed by the richnesses of Polish music before 1750.  The great misfortune is that most of us never hear it.  Why?  Well, so little has survived multiple acts of war (notably World War II), so little was printed at the time, and very few CDs and scores make it outside Polish borders today.  When a rare concert of early Polish music takes place, do go, as you will be astonished by its beauty and vitality.  Happily, Radio 3 picked up a concert given by the Retrospect Ensemble at last year’s Lufthansa Festival in London and is broadcasting most of it on The Early Music Show – alongside another concert of early Polish music – on Saturday 25 and Sunday 26 February, 13.00-14.00:

Adam Jarzębski (before 1590 – after 1648): Canzon quinta
Mikołaj Zieleński (c.1550 – c.1616?): Domus mea
Stanisław Sylwester Szarzyński (fl.1692 -1713): Iesu spes mea
Adam Jarzębski: Chromatica
Damian Stachowicz (1658-99): Veni consolator
Grzegorz Gerwazy Gorczycki (1665(7?)-1734): Completorium

Jarzębski has left only 27 compositions, all instrumental.  He was a talented man: composer, violinist, poet, author of the first ever guide to Warsaw, and architect to the king.  The title of his Chromatica reveals its unexpectedly dark heart, which seems to have sprung from a madrigal [the automatic spell-checker ‘corrected’ this to ‘marital’] by Monteverdi or Gesualdo.  All that’s missing is an Ohime! or two.  Here’s a video which aptly counterpoints the music with pictures of the Ujazdowski Palace just outside Warsaw’s city centre.  In Jarzębski’s time, it would have been in the country.  Its appearance today is rather more developed than it was when Jarzębski was its Intendant of Works.

The vocal pieces in the broadcast are very varied, ending with one of the glories of the Polish Baroque, Gorczycki’s Completorium, with its inspired mix of stile antico and stile moderno.  For now, here’s one of the other great beauties of this period, Iesu spes mea by Szarzyński.  This Cistercian monk left barely a dozen pieces, but this is a real jewel.

It’s particularly interesting because it is based on a Polish hymn for the dead and does interesting things with the tune.  Here’s the original hymn – Przez czyśćcowe upalenia – and translation of the first verse:

Through purgatorial fires (Przez czyśćcowe upalenia)
Which take away the sins (Którzy gładzą przewinienia)
Shedding tears without consolation (Łzy lejąc bez pocieszenia)
They beg Your mercy (Żebrzą Twego użalenia)
O Mary! (O Maryja!)

Szarzyński takes this, puts it into 3/4 with the first downbeat on the first Bb, and ornaments it.  The hymn itself is strangely constructed in its phrasing (though it’s quite typical for Polish hymns and folk tunes), but Szarzyński does wonderfully unexpected things with it.  The soprano’s first entry – ‘Jesus, my hope, my comfort’ (Iesu spes mea, Iesu solarium meum) – has two four-bar phrases followed by a five-bar phrase, and this fluid approach continues once the two violins enter.  Yet such ‘irregularities’ seem relaxed and unforced.  I particularly like the contrasting. almost desperate urgency of the middle section, with its repeated alliteration – ‘In you will I hope, to you will I cry out, I will sing to you, I will adore you, I will beseech you, I will give you my heart’ (In te sperabo et reclamabo, tibi cantabo, te adorabo, te invocabo, tibi cor dabo).

This concert performance by the Polish group Risonanza is a bit slow for my taste, there is some audience noise, and the camera position means that the vocal soloist is mostly out of sight … But listen to Retrospect Ensemble on 26 February for a really tight interpretation and a fantastic diminuendo at the very end.

• Edward Gardner on Lutosławski’s Symphony 4

I’ve just caught up with last Friday’s ‘Afternoon on 3’, which included a broadcast of (what I take to be) Edward Gardner’s forthcoming CD recording – with the BBC SO on Chandos – of Lutosławski’s Symphony 4 (1988-92). Unfortunately, the BBC’s ‘play it again’ technology has no sustaining power out here in the sticks (thanks, BT!), so it’s a halting, interrupted soundscape for me for the present.

Gardner’s series of Lutosławski recordings has been wonderful so far: fresh, vital, insightful.  This performance fulfilled my high expectations: a searing opening section, followed by a great sense of motility, and a measured yet edgy lyrical build-up to the final climax.  I’ve not heard as desolate a fall-away as here.  The BBC SO’s playing is top-notch and Chandos has achieved an exemplary textural clarity.  This third CD – which also includes the early Symphonic Variations, Lutosławski’s own orchestration of the Variations on a Theme of Paganini, and the Piano Concerto – is due out in the New Year.

In his discussion with Katie Derham beforehand, Gardner gave a succinct and helpful description of ‘aleatory’ as it applies to Lutosławski’s music, and what it means for the conductor, although it’s worth noting that most of Symphony 4 and of other late Lutosławski is conducted traditionally.  Gardner also had a fascinating if unexplored take on the structure of Symphony 4.  Lutosławski conceived of it as having two movements, played without a break. I hear it more as a fantasia masking a radical reconfiguration of the composer’s characteristic structural landmarks and procedures.  Gardner hears it differently again: “You can hear four pretty distinct movements actually.  You can hear a wonderfully chaos-to-form opening, a dance movement, a slow movement and a finale, I think.”  It will be interesting to see how Gardner’s approach on the CD bears out this new perception.

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