Iestyn Davies (countertenor), Allan Clayton (tenor) & Andrew Foster-Williams (baritone)
Roger Allam (narrator)
Recorded 29 & 30 March 2008 in West Road Concert Hall, Cambridge
CD No: HYPERION CDA67724 Duration: 55 minutes Reviewed: April 2009
Pawel Lukaszewski – Via Crucis
Reviewed by Graham Rogers
From the arresting opening eruption, reminiscent of the famous ‘O fortuna’ from Carl Orff’s “Carmina burana”, it is instantly clear that this is a passionate performance of a powerful work. Through its ensuing myriad contrasts, the peerless skill and unwavering dedication of Polyphony, the Britten Sinfonia, soloists and conductor Stephen Layton result in a compelling performance of Pawel Lukaszewski’s moving oratorio.
“Via Crucis” (The Way of the Cross) is tightly structured around the Stations of the Cross – 15 in total, including the Catholic Church’s recent incorporation of a final Station for the empty tomb and resurrection. Repetition plays a key part in evoking the intense devotional atmosphere – whether strictly, as with the unchanging ‘Miserere’ for female voices which recurs between each Station; or subtly, as with the shifting harmonies and syncopated rhythms of linking woodwind motifs.
A stark, medieval feel runs through much of the work; though the harmonic language is unquestionably modern. Echoes of Arvo Pärt, Philip Glass and (plush textures and soulful sweep) John Barry surface throughout, but Lukaszewski is emphatically his own man, his music sincere and substantial. Imaginative and entrancing, the powerful emotions encapsulated in “Via Crucis” range from austere religious awe, rage and despair to hushed contemplation and joyous hope.
The performers commit themselves wholeheartedly to the enterprise, demonstrating first-class musicianship and close affinity with the score. Cambridge-based Polyphony sounds glorious: full-bodied in big choruses and superbly controlled in more intimate moments. The subdued, dream-like setting of “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows”, with sustained clashing chords, is beautifully handled, while shimmering echo effects and suspensions lend “All we like sheep have gone astray” a mesmerising quality.
Roger Allam’s imposingly-spoken narrative passages are haunting, and each of the three vocal soloists makes a strong contribution. Countertenor Iestyn Davies’s account of Christ’s final moments is particularly poignant, accompanied by eerie wind-like howls from the choir. Apart from some slightly under-powered passages in the animated depiction of the stripping of Christ’s body, the orchestral playing is exemplary.
Whether taken as a reflection of Catholicism’s triumph over communism in Lukaszewski’s native Poland, or at face value as a deeply devotional account of the Passion, this is a monumental work which speaks loudly and directly. It is impossible to envisage a better performance. Strongly recommended.