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

Hyperion have just released what I take to be the label’s second Łukaszewski disc. The Via Crucis (The Way of the Cross) was composed by Łukaszewski in 1999-2000 at Warsaw. The scoring of the Via Crucis is for countertenor (Evangelist), tenor (Pilate, Simon, Evangelist), baritone (Jesus), narrator, SATB chorus and orchestra. On this performance there are: 3 soloists, 1 speaker, a choir of 28 and the orchestra consists of 1 flutist, 1 oboist, 1 clarinettist, 1 bassoonist, 4 horns, 3 trombones, 1 tuba, a percussion group of 5 players, 12 violins, 4 violas, 3 cellos, 2 double bass and organ.
The marketing notes describe Łukaszewski’s Via Crucis as, “destined to become a modern classic in the vein of Taverner’s ‘The Veil of the Temple’ or Pärt’s ‘St John Passion’.” I have heard the John Taverner and the Arvo Pärt scores although I am especially familiar with Franz Liszt’s version of the Via Crucis for solo voices, chorus and organ (or piano), S53 (1876-78)A.
The Via Crucis is a remarkable devotional Roman Catholic work that describes Christ’s final hours, centred around his horrific journey carrying the Cross. Via Crucis (or Via Dolorosa) designates a section of road running between the Antonia fortress and Mount Calvary (or Golgotha). This is the route on which Jesus Christ was forced to travel, straining under the weight of the Cross, to his crucifixion at Calvary. The design of the score is the division into fourteen Stations of the Cross or (Way of the Cross) that represent the Passion of Christ. Catholic churches generally have pictures or tableaux of these scenes along the inside walls of the nave, usually seven on each side. The devotional group move ritually around the nave repetitively stopping at each station for mediations of prayers and singing. This devotional exercise is generally undertaken during Lent; principally on Good Friday and also on Lent Fridays.
With its spare employment of resources and limited use in the church calendar the Via Crucis is really a sacred work for the specialist listener to be played during Lent. Nevertheless Łukaszewski’s Via Crucis may prove to be a masterwork of the twenty-first century.
This Hyperion version of Łukaszewski’s Via Crucis provides fifteen Stations of the Cross; one station longer than the fourteen Stations normally set. This is an expression of the Roman Catholic Church’s more recent implementation of the ‘Tomb and Resurrection’ as a final fifteenth station. For the Via Crucis, as is traditional, Łukaszewski has employed in Latin, principally Biblical texts taken from the books of Luke, Isaiah, Matthew, John and Mark and also if I am not mistaken verses from Creeds of the Catholic Church. Łukaszewski’s Via Crucis concludes with a Christus Vincit a section of less than a minute.
Preceding each of Łukaszewski’s fifteen Stations of the Cross three male voices sing a short solemn and austere three-part refrain followed by a meltingly beautiful and reflective supplication Adoramus te (We adore you). In the body of each successive Station there is a section of narrative for three solo voices of different ranges complete with differing instrumental colour. There is the part of Christ for baritone accompanied by an alto flute, the Evangelist for countertenor with a bass clarinet, the part of Pilate for tenor supplemented by a contrabassoon, and a substantial role for a speaker.
At the conclusion of each Station there is a Qui passus es pro nobis (You who have died for us) for women’s voices and low strings. The tempo and dynamic of the writing alters for each of the Stations with a gradual increase in power and weight from the first to the last devotion. Between each of the Stations there is a bridge section for wind and strings based on a Polish melody. The bridge passages are intended, according to Łukaszewski, as a “reset function” serving a similar purpose to the Promenade sections in Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition.
The role of Christ is sung by baritone Andrew Foster-Williams with a mellow and velvety timbre. Countertenor Iestyn Davies as the Evangelist conveys a controlled and youthful quality to his part. As Pilate tenor Allan Clayton performs with great credit, displaying a smooth tone and impressive enunciation. The choice of Roger Allam as the speaker is inspired. His pronunciation is vividly clear and he confidently communicates a mysterious often spine chilling foreboding to his narrative.
The vocal group Polyphony display impeccable ensemble. They can effortlessly shift from a tender, meditative beauty to powerful dramatic intensity; never loosing sight of the extreme devotional nature of the sacred texts. This is refined and sensitive playing from the excellent Britten Sinfonia providing the finest support. The authoritative direction of Stephen Layton ensures a seamless blend of soloists, chorus and orchestral forces.
Recorded in 2008 at the West Road Concert Hall in Cambridge with crystal clear and well balanced sound supplied by the Hyperion engineers. The essay in the booklet by Meurig Bowen is first class as is the overall presentation from Hyperion. I especially loved the splendid illustrations by Jerzy Duda-Gracz.
Łukaszewski is an important composer who over time will surely achieve worldwide acclaim. I am so grateful to have discovered these three Łukaszewski discs. The Via Crucis although a work for a specific feast in the Catholic church calendar may prove to be a masterwork of the twenty-first century.

Michael Cookson 

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