History and its recurring themes

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Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the early years of the Wratislavia Cantans festival in Wroclaw, Poland, is that it existed at all. Founded in 1966 by Andrzej Markowski, the festival rebelled against Communist hostility towards religion by flourishing as an oasis of sacred music, with a programme devoted to oratorios and choral works. Markowski’s idea might seem seditious, yet in a sign of the unpredictability of life under Communism, the Polish authorities tolerated it and even touted it as a measure of people’s freedom.

Markowski’s performances were apparently compelling. In the second year of his festival, to mark the 400th anniversary of Monteverdi’s birth, he staged a performance of the Monteverdi Vespers of 1610 that attracted all the attention you would expect in the late 1960s. The conclusion of this year’s Wratislavia Festival last Sunday saw another performance of this fascinating work from Paul McCreesh – now in his second year as the festival’s artistic director – and the Gabrieli Consort and Players.

It must have been very different from Markowski’s account, but we expect wide divergences in approach to the Vespers, so numerous are the interpreter’s choices. Using 12 singers and instruments only where specified in the original published score, McCreesh does not go for the visceral knock-out attempted by other conductors, but his comparatively reflective approach brought out elements of the work’s sublime beauty that are sometimes overlooked.

Following the Markowski years, the festival widened the scope of its offerings to include chamber-music and recitals. It survived the financially difficult period following the fall of Communism and still attracted big-name talent, though it did not always offer consistent quality, as McCreesh and general director Andrzej Kosendiak point out. This they are now remedying. The appointment of McCreesh, a dynamic presence on the British early music scene, is part of a strategy to strengthen the festival by the city’s mayor Rafal Dutkiewicz, a firm believer in the arts as a catalyst for economic growth.

A visit to Wroclaw triggers unavoidable thoughts of Poland’s gloomy history, not least because, as the former German city of Breslau, it was forcibly repopulated with Poles and Ukrainians after the second world war. It was the thirty years’ war, however, that was invoked by a concert from John Eliot Gardiner and the Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists in the wooden church of Swidnica, near Wroclow. This incredible, half-timber structure, with an enormous seating capacity, is one of three “churches of peace” that the Catholic Hapsburgs permitted the Protestants to build under the Peace of Westphalia, so long as durable construction materials were not used. Several earnest works by Johann Christoph Bach, from the generation immediately before Johann Sebastian, seemed to typify the dour times of the 17th century, but his strophic “Es ist nun aus” proved utterly charming. Any lingering gloom was swept away by polished performances of Bach’s cantantas “Gottes Zeit ist die allerbest Zeit” and “Lass, Fürstin”, although they too deal with funereal subjects.

Churches, some from the Gothic era, are also the principal venues of the city concerts – with mixed results. They are fine for works like the Vespers; less fine for string quartets (as two local ensembles discovered in Mozart); and reasonably satisfactory for John Taverner’s substantial homage to Mozart, Kaleidoscopes for four string quartets and solo oboe (the excellent Nicholas Daniel), a mystical, strangely personal work with no obviously recognisable quotations from Mozart’s music. In three years’ time the churches will be supplemented by a new concert hall for which the late Russell Johnson’s firm of Artec is in charge of acoustics.

The festival’s mix of foreign and Polish musicians was epitomised by a performance of the Brahms Requiem in which McCreesh combined his Gabrieli Consort with Wroclaw’s Lutoslawski Philharmonic Chorus for a stirring, red-blooded account of the score that showed no bow to early-music practice other than occasional restraint in string vibrato by the Sinfonia Varsovia. The baritone soloist, Dietrich Henschel, also gave an eloquent rendition of Brahms’s Four Serious Songs in Detlev Glanert’s recent orchestral version, which links them with modernistic interludes drawing on their own thematic material. This is a worthy endeavour that, picking up on Brahms’s own apparent intent to orchestrate the songs, at its best broadens their spirituality.

The festival’s one commission, Agata Zubel’s avant garde of the Songs (based on the Bible’s Song of Songs), went on for 45 self-indulgent minutes during which members of the fine chamber orchestra Aukso sat idle much of the time. More Polish music could be heard at regular church services. I opted for Wroclaw’s early music group Ars Cantus and was rewarded with mid-15th century music performed by expert vocalists and (separately) an ensemble of shawms and sackbut that made as infernal a racket as any western group. Especially arresting were compositions by Nikolai de Radom, a Polish composer who wrote expertly in the style cultivated contemporaneously by Guillaume Dufay. Here was another intriguing fragment of history of the kind one keeps encountering here.

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