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Marcin MIELCZEWSKI (c1600 - 1651): Sacred works

[I] Masses & Motets
The Sixteen
Dir: Eamonn Dougan
rec: Nov 21 - 24, 2016, London, St Augustine's Church, Kilburn
Coro - COR16153 (© 2017) (60'32")
Liner-notes: E/PL; lyrics - translations: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

Benedictio et claritas; Canzona I a 2; Canzona III a 3; Deus, in nomine tuo; Gaude Dei genetrix; Iubilate Deo; Missa Cerviensiana (Kyrie; Gloria); Missa O gloriosa domina; Quem terra, pontus, aethera; Veni, Domine

Zoe Brookshaw, Sally Dunkley, Camilla Harris, Katy Hill, Alexandra Kidgell, Charlotte Mobbs, Emilia Morton, soprano; Kim Porter, Caroline Trevor, contralto; Ian Aitkenhead, Daniel Collins, alto; Simon Berridge, Jeremy Budd, Steven Harrold, George Pooley, tenor; Ben Davies, Robert Evans, Tim Jones, Stuart Young, bass
Simon Jones, Daniel Edgar, violin; Joseph Crouch, cello; Jan Spencer, violone; Emily White, Abigail Newman, Stephanie Dyer, Adrian France, sackbut; Joy Smith, harp; Eligio Luis Quinteiro, theorbo; Alastair Ross, harpsichord, organ

[II] "Martino Milsczewski II"
Wroclaw Baroque Ensemble
Dir: Andrzej Kosendiak
rec: June 24 - 26, 2016 & April 24 - 27, 2017, Wroclaw, Witold Lutoslawski National Forum of Music
CD Accord - ACD 248-2 (© 2018) (53'26")
Liner-notes: E/PL; lyrics - translations: E/PL
Cover, track-list & booklet

Canzona II a 2 (II.7); Canzona II a 3 (II.9); Credidi (I.16); Dixit Dominus (I.21); Laetatus sum (I.33); Lauda Jerusalem (I.34); Laudate pueri (I.36); Magnificat (I.38); Missa Triumphalis (I.56) (Kyrie; Gloria); Nisi Dominus (I.57)
(*) I: numbers according to the composer's catalogue of works edited by Barbara Przybyszewska-Jarminska

Aldona Bartnik, Aleksandra Turalska, soprano; Matthew Venner, Piotr Lykowski, alto; Maciej Gocman, Tomas Lajtkep, tenor; Tomás Král, Jonathan Brown, Jerzy Butryn, bass
Zbigniew Pilch, Mikolaj Zgólka, Adam Pastuszka, violin; Julia Karpeta, viola da gamba; Krzystof Karpeta, violone; Janusz Musial, double bass; Johannes Kronfeld, Ferdinand Hendrich, Masafumi Sakamoto, Hans-Martin Schlegel, sackbut; William Lyons, bassoon; Premysl Vacek, Anton Birula, theorbo; Marta Niedzwiecka, harpsichord, organ

In recent years a remarkable number of discs with Polish music of the 17th century has been released. Most of them are from Poland, which attest to the growing popularity of early music and of historical performance practice in that country. However, the British ensemble The Sixteen has also turned its attention to this repertoire, and under the direction of its associate conductor Eamonn Dougan it has recorded a series of discs with music by some of the main composers from 17th-century Poland: Pekiel, Gorczycki and now Mielczewski.

The year of his death indicates that he was a contemporary of Monteverdi, but it is not known when he was born. However, we do know that he was a pupil of Franciszek Lilius. The latter was himself a pupil of Frescobaldi and it is probably through him that Mielczewski became acquainted with the Italian style. The first documented evidence of his activities as a musician dates from 1632, when he was a member of the royal chapel in Warsaw. From 1645 until his death he was in the service of Karol Ferdynand Waza, bishop of Plock and brother of King Ladislaw IV. The bishop's court stayed mostly in Warsaw and its immediate environment. Mielczewski's oeuvre is of considerable size and variety.

One of the features of his oeuvre is the fact that it includes pieces in the modern concertato style, which emerged in Italy around 1600, but also in the stile antico, of which Palestrina was the most famous exponent. However, the same goes for the output of the composers mentioned above, Pekiel and Gorczycki. In fact, this is a common feature of much music of the 17th century. One can think here of Monteverdi, but also a much later composer as Alessandro Scarlatti.

Although Mielczewski wrote music in the stile antico, the modern concertato style is dominant. Apart from sacred concertos for solo voices, he composed large-scale polychoral pieces in which elements of the concertato style are incorporated through passages for solo voices. It seems that these works rather reflect the Roman style of polychorality than the Venetian, as the choirs have the same scoring.

It has been possible to determine the number of his compositions at 120. A part of his output has been lost; around 90 pieces have been preserved, unfortunately some of them incomplete. That goes for two of the masses included on the two discs under review here. The Missa Cerviensiana [I] may have been the result of a commission of bishop Karol Ferdynand. Only Kyrie and Gloria have come down to us, interestingly thanks to a copy made for the Lutheran Church of St John in Gdansk. It is scored for six voices (SSATTB) and an instrumental choir of two violins and four sackbuts - a common scoring in Mielczewski's oeuvre. The mass is based on an unidentified song, which is quoted literally at several moments, especially in the Kyrie. The Missa Triumphalis is also incomplete, and again only Kyrie and Gloria have been preserved. This mass is in eight parts, but there seems to have been an earlier version for sixteen voices in three choirs. The present recording is based on a copy from 1689, with additional instrumental parts from the pen of Georg Nauwerck, then Kantor of the Church of St John the Baptist, where this copy was made. The Gloria includes many passages for solo voices.

The Sixteen recorded also a complete mass. The Missa O gloriosa domina is based on a popular Marian song, which was known in Poland-Lithuania with a Latin and a Polish text. That melody is literally quoted in the Kyrie and in the 'Cum sancto spiritu' section of the Gloria. It is scored for six voices and basso continuo and includes passages for solo voices. The Wroclaw Baroque Ensemble recorded a sequence of Vesper Psalms, which are also written in the modern concertato style. They are taken from a collection of music for Vespers, which comprises settings in two different scorings. Some are for three choirs and basso continuo, others for six voices and six instruments in the common scoring mentioned above. The pieces included here are all from the second category. The solo episodes are written in the modern monodic style, and here one is reminded of the music of Mielczewski's contemporary Monteverdi.

Two pieces in The Sixteen's programme are comparable with these Psalms. Benedictio et claritas is for the same scoring and opens, rather unusually, with an instrumental sinfonia. The first section is homophonic and is used as a refrain. Quem terra, pontus, aethera is a hymn for Christmas. It has been preserved in a copy made for the Lutheran Church of St Mary Magdalene in Wroclaw. It is based on an unidentified song, presented at the opening by the soprano.

Two further pieces recorded by The Sixteen are entirely in the monodic style. Deus, in nomine tuo is a sacred concerto for bass, two violins, bassoon and basso continuo, and is one of only two compositions by Mielczewski printed in his lifetime, in a German collection of sacred concertos. It is a setting of the three first verses of Psalm 54. Veni, Domine is the setting of an Alleluia verse for the fourth Sunday of Advent: "Come, Lord, and do not delay". It is scored for two sopranos, bass and basso continuo, and is structured as a dialogue between the two upper voices and the bass.

The Sixteen's programme also includes two pieces from the other side of the stylistic spectrum. Gaude Dei genitrix is a motet for five voices, which was once part of the repertoire of the rorantist ensemble of Wawel Cathedral in Cracow (more about that here: It is a setting of an antiphon for the Vespers of the Feast of the Assumption. Comparable in style is Jubilate Deo, a setting of Psalm 65 for three choirs. The fact that they are of the same scoring (SATB) shows that Mielczewski, in his adoption of the cori spezzati technique, was influenced by the practice is Rome rather than that in Venice, as in the latter's polychoral music the choirs are usually of a different scoring.

One can only wholeheartedly welcome these recordings, which not only pay attention to a composer who has been neglected for too long, but also help to fill in what for many music lovers is still a white spot on the musical map of Europe. Mielczewski was an excellent composer, who knew his way both in the stile antico and in the concertante style of his time. In his Vesper Psalms he can easily hold his ground in comparison with better-known contemporaries from other parts of Europe.

Overall I have enjoyed both recordings. The singing and playing is generally very good. Unfortunately the singers of The Sixteen use a little vibrato here and there, which is noticeable although not really disturbing. It is rather the lack of dynamic differentiation in the pieces in concertante style which I find unsatisfying. In that respect I find the Wroclaw Baroque Ensemble more convincing. All in all, I slightly prefer their performances to those of The Sixteen. The nice thing is that the two programmes are entirely different, which makes the two discs complementary rather than competitors.

Johan van Veen (© 2019)

Relevant links:

The Sixteen
Wroclaw Baroque Ensemble

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