cieslak niepodlega acte prealable

Artur Cieślak (b.1968)
Niepodległa (Independent) – oratorio for soloists, reciter, mixed choir and chamber orchestra (2018/2021)
Joanna Tylkowska-Drożdż  (soprano); Tomasz Krzysica (tenor); Janusz Lewandowski (bass-baritone); Grzegorz Pelutis (reciter)
Chamber Choir of the Academy of Art in Szczecin/ Barbara Halec
Instrumental ensemble of the Academy of Art in Szczecin/Norbert Twórczyński
rec. 2021, Szczecin, Poland
Polish text with English translation
Acte Préalable AP0526 [43]

The Acte Préalable label’s bold and often rewarding quest to delve into the most obscure corners of Polish repertoire both old and new continues with this recent disc of Artur Cieślak’s oratorio Niepodległa which translates as ‘Independent’; I do not know whether the use of the adjective rather than the noun is significant. The work was conceived to mark the centenary of the establishment of the Second Polish Republic in November 1918 directly after the signing of the Armistice. It was first performed in December 2018 in Szczecin, whose Arts Academy commissioned it. Given that the work is a pièce d’occasion, it is perhaps surprising that Cieślak revised the work a couple of years later for reduced instrumental forces of single winds, brass, four percussionists, piano, string quartet and double bass. It is that version that features on this disc – the majority of the performers here were involved in the premiere of the original work. 

We are informed in a rather brief foreword that Cieślak started out as a pianist and gravitated towards composition only during the late 1990s. He has since produced a considerable portfolio of orchestral, chamber and instrumental works, several of which have been recorded on this label. Since the majority of the booklet is devoted to detailed artist biographies and to the text and its translation, there is only a minimum of background information in the limited space which remains regarding the present work. To all intents and purposes it incorporates three parts of broadly equal duration. 

The first of these concerns the November Uprising of 1830 which was triggered by a rebellion of non-commissioned officers at the cadet school in Warsaw. Cieslak sets fragments from a number of sources, most significantly November Night, a dramatic treatment of the mutiny by the playwright Stanisław Wyspiański (1869-1907), although the composer is far from conventional in his approach to dialogue. The opening percussion effects are astringent and militaristic and Cieślak builds on this by incorporating a range of broadly modernistic effects including a spoken chorus, whose parts are arranged with considerable skill, although their execution here is rather raw. Of the solo singers, the soprano Joanna Tylkowska-Drożdż  and tenor Tomasz Krzysica seem most secure with Cieślak’s demanding writing but there is little in the way of emotional engagement. The composer’s dominating idiom is a kind of solid, all-purpose modernism which perhaps suits the purposes of the subject matter but defies memorability. The closing bars of this panel, with the tenor’s recollection of events petering out over ominous sighing strings and piano, was the one moment in the work where I felt moved. 

Part Two is centred around the January Uprising of 1863, and Cieślak’s chosen texts here include a reflection of the importance of this event by Józef Piłsudski, who would become the first Chief of the new Polish State in 1918, as well as an inscription on the grave of one of the insurgents who perished in the uprising and a fragment from Liberation, another play by Wyspiański. This latter is accompanied by quiet, wistful music (one suspects the composer is familiar with the Libera Me from Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem), although it certainly doesn’t seem consoling; in the main, Cieślak’s go-to strategy is confrontational , percussive and brooding.

Only in the final section does the text address the actual events of late 1918, and even here the reference is far from direct, ,as Cieślak sets an extended fragment of yet another play by Wyspiański, Wedding (written in 1901) which, judging from the translation, seems to offer a heavily symbolic portent of what might be about to happen by incorporating a cast of characters drawn from the entirety of Polish history, although this isn’t even mentioned in the booklet note, so those non-Polish listeners like myself with minimal knowledge of the subject are likely to be left somewhat perplexed. From the outset much of the weight is carried by the chorus who deliver a portentous, rapidly spoken chant in unpredictable, broken rhythms. They are the real stars of this performance – they have evidently been well-coached and the impression is reinforced only when the exposed solo singers enter the fray with admittedly taxing snippets of commentary. Cieślak rarely diverges from his by now predictable style of aggressive, if conservative, dissonance, and the piece concludes with a final setting of part of a reflective speech made by Józef Piłsudski a year after independence had been achieved, in which he recognises the efforts and sacrifices of his compatriots.

Niepodległa is not an easy experience – it casts a somewhat gloomy pall over the listener with little relief over its 43 minute span. Whilst there can be little doubt about the sincerity behind its conception and execution, one of the problems I found in attempting to make sense of the work was the real lack of stylistic differentiation between the three parts. All the performers give their best to the cause but the music frequently seems unwieldy and samey. I rarely felt moved or even impressed. Perhaps a native Polish audience with a much deeper understanding of the events described would respond entirely differently. As far as that is concerned, Acte Préalable hardly do their foreign listeners any favours – simply identifying the writers of the various texts rather than explaining their background and significance is unhelpful, not least when the majority of the booklet is taken up with glossy photographs and extensive artist biographies. 

This, then, is a disc for Polish music collectophiles. Overall, the playing and singing are solid and reliable rather than distinguished and the recording standards are perfectly serviceable without being spectacular. I would be extremely surprised if Niepodległa ever transcends its status as a pièce d’occasion – I’m certainly unlikely to be revisiting it anytime soon. 

Richard Hanlon

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