Lukaszewski: Via Crucis (CD Review - International Record Review, 2009)

This is a near-hour-long oratorio for three soloists, chorus and orchestra, and a narrator speaking in Latin, by the contemporary Polish composer Pawel Lukaszewski, who is now 40. Stephen Layton has previously recorded a selection of his shorter sacred Latin motets (reviewed in September 2008), but Via Crucis is infinitely more ambitious, a through-composed setting of biblical texts all related to the road to Calvary (the Way of the Cross). Where his musical predecessors  (Liszt perhaps the most obvious example) had the traditional 14 Stations of the Cross to adhere to, however, Lukaszewski has 15: the last, the empty tomb and resurrection, being a recent addition, and one that enables a powerful, blazing C major conclusion to an otherwise sombre narrative.

Hyperion's booklet has the full set of texts, in parallel Latin and English, with sources, the identity of the many voices and the various textual subdivisions all clearly identified. This is vital for following the structure. Meurig Bowen's long booklet note is also first rate, providing comprehensive and essential background information as well as a detailed exposition of the piece which has many complex strands. These include the introductory and concluding refrains for each Station, various repeated but varied musical signposts, quasi-chorales, even Polish folk elements. His confident assertion that 'the journey witnessed in Via Crucis...can also be seen as areflection of the Polish Catholicism's victory over Communism", however uncomfortable, here feels correct. The visual illustrations by a contemporary Polish artist are also a striking complement to this eminently accessible oratorio, whose impact is unquestionable.

Reservations? Not many. Obviously it would help to be a believer, preferably Catholic, to get the most out of Lukaszewski's visionary work, which for long stretches is soulful and meditative, although punctuated with dramatic outbursts. I think it manages, just, not to be gridlocked by its 15-part structure and by the further formal constraints the composer has imposed on it and on himself: there is enough variety (again, just) of tempo and pace to sustain even agnostic interest. I have no reservations about the performance and recording: the piece is delivered with passionate, almost frightening intensity. From Polyphony under Stephen Layton's inspired direction one expects no less luminously choral textures (choral, and instrumental too, from the Britten Sinfonia). His three vocal soloists are likewise admirable: the countertenor Iestyn Davies as the Evangelist in particular finding in his contribution a beautiful combination of sweetness and compassion; the tenor Allan Clayton, and baritone Andrew Foster-Williams as Jesus, have less to do but do it beguilingly. Roger Allam reads the tiny Latin superscriptions that preface each stopping-point along the Way: he is surely luxury casting as Station Announcer?

Soloists from Polyphony's ranks twice have a Station to themselves, such as No. 7 'Surely he hath borne our griefs'. from Isaiah, and acquit themselves well both times. In No. 12, describing the death of Jesus, the violinists of the Britten Sinfonia are required to lay down their instuments and blow very gently on ocarinas. It could be a gimmick: it isn't. Nothing here is.


Piers Burton-Page

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