The voice of Poland

Nigel Short, artistic director of Tenebrae Choir, tells IAM how he fell in love with the compositions of a composer from Poland

I first discovered Ave Maria, a piece of choral music by Polish composer Pawel Łukaszewski, back in 2004. The work (for double choir) has a lush and warm harmonic language and a compositional style that makes the text very clear.

I decided to record it in 2005 on a disc of music ranging in styles, as well as scale, that included such well known choral gems as Allegri’s setting of Miserere – which has just been voted the finest recording of this piece by France Musique – and Sir John Tavener’s atmospheric Song for Athene. Once I heard the Tenebrae singers work their magic with Ave Maria I was keen to learn more about this new voice coming from Eastern Europe.

Nigel Short © Chris O’Donovan
Nigel Short © Chris O’Donovan

Several years later Paweł asked if we would record a whole disc of his music including some new settings of Tenebrae Responsories and Shakespeare’s Sonnets. I jumped at the chance. Of course, in the intervening years, Paweł has been commissioned by choirs from all over the world and his music has grown in popularity to a scale most composers can only dream of. He is now regarded as the best-known Polish composer of his generation, and it is timely that we are releasing this album of his choral music, Daylight Declines, in 2018 as it coincides with his 50th birthday year and the 100th anniversary of Poland’s independence.

I was intrigued and excited to see how his compositional style had developed in the intervening years; I wasn’t disappointed. The same devotional qualities are there – the sacred texts being at the forefront, with everything harmonically and rhythmically built around them – but now his work has an increased intensity and dramatic element that suits my choir down to the ground. Much of the music is sequential, but punctuated with awkward harmonic shifts that first lull the listener only to jolt them awake again. This kind of writing is difficult for choirs as every singer needs to know exactly just how wide the tones and semitones need to be so that chordal shifts are instantly in tune, rather than taking a moment to settle.

Another new aspect is the variety of vocal textures Paweł uses to accompany melodic lines. These are sometimes quirky, but he always manages to set the lines with the focus on text in such a way that they cut through easily, meaning singers can be expressive with words rather than having to just spit out consonants.

Further, there is now a real hard edge harmonic edge to some of the pieces. This arrests the listener’s attention, and is particularly evident at the start of the first Responsory, employing biting minor 2nds and minor 9ths.

With the Shakespeare settings Paweł has developed his style enormously in terms of word painting. He can set a scene perfectly and then bring out individual words that he has decided need special attention. I find Weary With Toil and Daylight Declines particularly effective. The former has an aural delight in the form of a soft bed of harmony that gently flows and sinks, just as the text tells of the weary body hastening towards bed and a blissful sleep, only to journey into troubled dreams that keep the mind tossing and turning. Rest is not so easily captured and appropriately the piece finishes with an air of tension.

All in all, it has been a joy to discover this refreshingly clear new voice from within the choral fraternity and I hope choirs and their directors from all over the world will take the plunge and dip into Paweł’s beautifully crafted and atmospheric works. If they do, they will soon lose themselves in the huge variety of his harmonic and rhythmic settings.

Daylight Declines is released on Signum Classics on 1 June 2018. The recording was made through support from the Adam Mickiewicz Institute and Polish Cultural Institute.