Roman Maciejewski: Missa pro defunctis

Hossa, Rehlis, Briscein, Konieczny, BBC Singers and Chorus, BBC SO/Dworzy

Westminister Cathedral, 8 February 2010 3.5 stars

Roman MaciejewskiThere is a trend in 20th-century Polish music – dating back to Szymanowski’s Stabat Mater – for giant vocal-orchestral works that very often set religious texts. One thinks of Penderecki's St Luke Passion and Polish Requiem, Górecki’s Second Symphony … right up to Pawel Mykietyn’s St Mark Passion (2008).

Maciejewski’s Missa pro defunctis (1945–59), for four soloists, large orchestra and 150-strong chorus, certainly earns its place by the numbers: this performance, heavily cut, lasted 2 hours; the full piece is rumoured to be twice that length. But, on tonight's evidence, it earns its place on merit too.

Historically it bridges the gap between Szymanowski and the postwar avant-garde generation to which Penderecki and Górecki belonged, a period when Poland was most heavily under Stalin's boot, and cultural restrictions were at their tightest. Maciejewski could only have written such a piece – modern, extravagant, religious – as an exile, in Sweden, Great Britain and the USA. The first part was performed, under Maciejewski's baton, at the 1960 Warsaw Autumn Festival, but the whole work was not heard until 1975 in a Los Angeles performance conducted by Roger Wagner.

Despite this, it seems to have had some impact on the stylistic development of that younger generation, or, at least, caught an early wave of the same onrushing tide. The opening motif made heavy use of unison chords for strings and piano, a sort of fuzzy bell tone that characterised Górecki's music throughout the 1970s. The vocal writing here also recalled Penderecki's in the more intimate sections of his Polish Requiem. As you expected something more bombastic (portentous gongs and all) the choral lines drew their own sting, taking you with them.

It was a striking opening to a piece that would continue to surprise and hold the attention throughout its 120 minutes. The lack of pomposity, in the face of all odds, was also a refreshing hallmark. The rest of the work alternated grand choral sections (a massive fugue for the Kyrie, for example) with impassioned arias in which the soloists were allowed to slide silkily over the BBC SO's sumptuous bed. The most beautiful of these was 'Inter oves' for soprano, in which lots of celeste, flute and strings provided a rich tonal foundation, out of which the soloist's melodies drifted freely into unexpected harmonic regions. There was something almost Messiaen-like about the piece at this point.

Maciejewski's harmonic and melodic writing was, in fact, pretty pedestrian most of the time. What stole the show for him was his skill as an orchestrator; most brilliantly of all, he was able to combine his strengths and weaknesses to the overall benefit of the music. By keeping his harmonic language so limited (pages and pages were essentially tonic or dominant pedals) he was able to maximise the impact of his massed forces without over-complexity cancelling itself out. There may have been plenty of local activity and detail, but it was all held within a solid construction of square tonal bricks. Individual parts became lost to the overall sonic thrust, an effect that would be carried to its logical conclusion by later Polish composers. The result here, however, was music of great clarity and emotional directness.

The BBC singers and players were in typically lush form, bringing out all the character of Maciejewski's idiosyncratic instrumental writing and the four soloists were excellent – only Aleš Briscein did I feel lacked a little power in his aria 'Quid sum miser.

An epic curio, then, which we are unlikely to hear again for some time, but one that I was glad not to have missed on this occasion.

By Tim Rutherford-Johnson

Photo: Roman Maciejewski

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