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Review: PASSIO in Gramophone

PRZYBYLSKI Passio for 12 Voices

Author: Arnold Whittall, Gramophone

http://www.gramophone.co.uk/review/przybylski-passio-for-12-voices

Born in Poland in 1984, Dariusz Przybylski studied in Germany with York Höller and Wolfgang Rihm; this recording was made in Berlin by a vocal ensemble with whom Przybylski spent a year (2012-13) as composer-in-residence.

Passio et Mors Domini Nostri Jesu Christi Secundum Ioannem (2013) for 12 voices, to give the work its full title, was presumably the main result of that residency and its a cappella style is closer to that of other relatively austere Passion settings – Arvo Pärt’s, for example – than to the overtly dramatic idiom of James MacMillan’s St John Passion (2008) for solo baritone, larger and smaller choruses and orchestra. ‘Holy minimalism’ will not do as a label for Przybylski’s work, however. Although its atmosphere is ritualistically intense and it moves slowly, with only the rarest hints of animation, its harmony is too unstable to sink into stagnation and its use of several different languages also distances it from any more obviously liturgical precursors.

The booklet-notes by conductor Timo Kreuser spell out the music’s modal construction, explaining its rootedness as well as its ability to deal in predominantly dissonant sonorities and canonic manoeuvres sustained to achieve a hypnotically restrained effect. Some passages reinforce their meditative aura so determinedly that they risk an overly passive mode of expression; even the extended setting of the Stabat mater seems more consolatory than mournful, and the music reaches out most powerfully to the listener when a more expressionistic quality is allowed to emerge.

It’s possible that the mesmerising avoidance of straightforward melodic writing found in Ligeti’s choral works has left a trace in Przybylski’s music, coupled with a resistance to the forthright melodramatics of Penderecki’s St Luke Passion. Passio and the two shorter accompanying items seem almost obsessively concerned with constraining technical routines, yet the result is far from dull or monochrome and the performances are formidably accomplished. The recordings, made in Berlin’s St Thomas Aquinas Catholic Academy, have a degree of resonance that creates the illusion of voices turning into sustaining instruments – strings, brass – from time to time. That effect adds to the music’s persuasiveness, heightening one’s curiosity about the composer’s work in other media.

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