Masses from the Mysterious Master of the Polish Baroque, Bartholomiej Pekiel

During the transition from Renaissance to Baroque that began around 1600, contemporary musicians developed terms to capture the distinction — stile antico and stile moderno. To a date that runs surprisingly late into the seventeenth century, there were a number of composers that worked readily in both, and to that company belongs the little-known Polish musician Bartholomiej Pekiel, subject of CDAccord’s “Bartholomiej Pekiel II,” featuring the Wroclaw Baroque Ensemble under the direction of Andrzej Kosendiak.

The date of Pekiel’s birth is not known, and of the sources that I reviewed, the only one brave enough to even venture a guess placed it ca. 1610, based on chronology and the nature of his professional appointments. The historical record is silent on Pekiel until 1637, where he is listed as an organist in the service of Wladislaw IV Vasa, a position which may have gone back to Wladislaw’s installation as regent in 1633.

If one were to search for a picture of Pekiel the regal gent below would turn up; this is a Rubens portrait of Wladislaw, patron of Pekiel. While he never regained the crown of Sweden once held by his great-great-grandfather — Gustav Vasa, “the father of Sweden” — as he had desired, Wladislaw was no piker; he won the Smolensk War against the Russians and defeated the Ottoman Empire in the course of defending the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth that he led. Pekiel was named vice-Kapellmeister to the King in the 1640s, but did not move into the top job until just after the Wladislaw’s death in 1648, when the Italian master that held this position decided to leave.

Pekiel’s new boss was John Casimir II Vasa, and under his watch the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth began to falter, owing to freshly renewed invasions from Sweden and Russia. Pekiel was forced out of his post in 1655 when the entire Royal family fled Warsaw in the face of the Swedish “Deluge,” as it is known.

In 1658, Pekiel was named Kapellmeister at Wawel Cathedral in Krakow, though it appears that he left this position in 1664 to rejoin the Royal Court at Warsaw. In a recently discovered church document, Pekiel’s death in 1666 is alluded to; two years later, John II Casimir Vasa stepped down from the Polish throne, and the Commonwealth to which Bartholomiej Pekiel devoted a lifetime of service lay in ruins.

In their relentless sacking of Poland, the Swedes and Russians carried away most of Poland’s cultural treasures to that time, and as a result most of Pekiel’s considerable body of work has been recovered from foreign sources. He left 14 mass settings of which the Missa Pulcherrima is most famous; longer masses of this kind are examined in an earlier installment of this series, “Bartholomiej Pekiel,” issued by CDAccord in July of 2016. This disc consists mainly of shorter mass settings.

The Missa a 14 (i.e. “Mass in 14 parts”) contains only a Kyrie and Gloria though this would not be considered “incomplete,” as such settings were usually filled out by chant or mass movements from elsewhere; medieval manuscripts offer a rich variety of anonymous Gloria-Credo pairs that were considered complete in their day.

This and the Missa Concertata La Lombardesca are examples of Pekiel’s work in the stilo moderno, and utilize strings and brass. These demonstrate Pekiel’s mastery of the Italian manner, whether he learnt it from his immediate supervisor in Warsaw or from studying in Italy in the unknown, early part of his career, as has been suggested. Pekiel got the memo, but his method of interpreting its meaning is entirely original.

The works in stile antico — which dominate this program — are very arresting, and at times, thrilling. In the Missa Senza Le Ceremonie II — a work used on ordinary Sundays, or in services through the week — there is a constant sense of suspense; Pekiel is spading up new earth with each new section while an insistent, madrigal-like rhythm holds it all together. You never know where it’s going to land, but it never leaves the listener behind. Pekiel displays a wide variety of vocal entrances; in the Missa Concertata La Lombardesca these range from wispy fragments of text that trail alongside the instruments to sudden, massive buildups of voices that come from out of nowhere.

In sum, as familiar as one may be with Renaissance or Baroque choral music, if you haven’t heard Pekiel, you haven’t heard this. “Vasa” is the name of a type of ship as well, and Kosendiak runs a tight one. The singers in the Wroclaw Baroque are very alert, and have to be, because in many places Pekiel demands that you enter in an odd place in the texture with little clue as to where. The package is handsomely bound in a crush-proof, textured case a little larger than a standard CD container, and contain good notes, multi-lingual texts and plenty of session photos. One might like a bit more of

The package is handsomely bound in a crush-proof, textured case a little larger than a standard CD container, and contain good notes, multi-lingual texts and plenty of session photos. One might like a bit more of sense of separation between voices and instruments, but this is a very honest perspective on how the music would sound in performance, so that’s not really a problem. Each mass setting is separated by a short Pekiel canon or fugue to help distinguish between them, but I found myself skipping these brief tracks in order to access the vocal music more readily.

Conductor Andrzej Kosendiak

David “Uncle Dave” Lewis is the co-host of WTJU’s “The Early Music Show” which airs on Mondays between 7-9 PM. He will present music of Bartholomiej Pekiel in the second hour of The Early Music Show to be broadcast on July 10th.

Bartholomiej Pekiel II
Andrzej Kosendiak, Wroclaw Baroque Ensemble

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