recommended music

Pavel Lukaszewski: Via Crucis

by Mark Nowakowski

Pawel Lukaszewski's Via Crucis presents us with a rare occurrence in the world of modern music: a prayerful, deliberately religious new work of Catholic music, infused with meaning and many layers of symbolism. Having witnessed a skilled live performance of the work, this review will concentrate on not only the recent Polyphony recording, but also on live-performance viability of the piece. 

First, the new Hyperion/Polyphony recording. For the first few listenings, I recommend that the hearer keep the CD booklet in hand. Lukaszewski's work is intimately linked to the text of the Stations, and as such the liner notes can be seen as not only a listening aid, but an invitation to meditation and prayer. Above all else, this is a functional rendition of the stations of the cross.

From the outset it is important to remember that Lukaszewski uses not only melodic instances, but also various forms of tonality, as a representation of the various events and characters in the passion story. For instance, the beginning of each new station is announced first with a hammering motive in the orchestra, followed by a full choral declamation. The "Adoramus" prayer always enters next in a soothing and ancient-sounding arrangement. At this point, the individual characters and gospel texts relating to the station are presented. While the narration is spoken, instances of Pilate, the words of a particular gospel writer, or later Simeon, are expressed in lovely tenor and countertenor solos. Instances of the observers or congregation tend to be disjunct and confused, very effectively representing the theological idea of the lost sheep. By contrast, whenever Jesus speaks, it is through the representation of a lyrical baritone solo, always supported by a consonant harmonic underpinning. At the end of each station, the "miserere" prayer is sung quietly in a soothing yet unsettling tonal arrangement for four-part choir. At this point, a soft and unsettling wind-dominated "movement" section takes place, pinning melodic movement against a dissonant drone as Christ moves to the next station. 

Lukaszewski very effectively mixes melodic and harmonic leitmotifs with special musical occurrences, using the change of style to underscore specific theological points. For instance, Christ's final moments on the cross are quiet yet thoroughly harrowing, painting a sickening picture of Deicide. Yet as Jesus gives up the ghost, the words "Consummatum Est" are greeting with surprising movement and color in the music, underscoring not an end, but a beginning. Later, before the station where Christ is laid in the tomb, the hammering motive announcing each station is stated in soft, muted tones.

Lukaszewski adds a final station to his piece, this being the resurrection. The musical effect here is initially impressionistic, slowly shedding the grit of the previous musical clashes and emerging in a final and glorious exclamation in C Major, the traditional Resurrection chord in the Polish resurrection Mass.

I had the distinct pleasure of seeing my friends in the Szczecin Polytechnic University Choir give the premiere of this work in their city, led by their young but talented conductor Szymon Wyrzykowski. Set in the Szczecin Cathedral, I was thrilled to hear how well the work lay in the confines of such a space without the aid of any additional amplification for soloists.

The choir -- a skilled group comprised of University students and members of the community -- did a superb job of what is a difficult work to perform. I was curious to hear how various sections of the work would be perceived in such a loud and echoing space. The moment of Christ's death, with eerie humming and softly played ocarinas, was particularly haunting. Later, the glorious finale absolutely shook the Church to its foundation, with the exclamations "Christus Vincit" reinforced by the poignant and fiery organ writing. 

Most importantly, this performance proved that a community with even moderate musical resources could organize and perform a quality new work of religious music. While nothing can replace the great classical Easter meditations, Lukaszewski's Via Crucis is a sacred work for our time. The audience, comprising people from all parts of the community, received the work both prayerfully and with great enthusiasm. Before giving his final blessing, the visibly-moved Archbishop requested an encore of the Resurrection sequence. 

This is a work that has thoroughly surprised me while also becoming an important part of my Lenten spirituality. It is a taxing work, thoroughly reflective of the tragedy which was the passion and death of our Lord Jesus christ. Yet the final moments of the work are triumphant, infusing both joy and hope into the listener. As such, I believe that it is a work that Parishes with larger musical resources should be clamoring to perform, for the benefit, catechesis, and edification of their faithful.

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