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It is an unusual pleasure to be able to devote an entire column to a single musicologist, singer, harpist, and presenter of tastefully vivid re-imaginings of the past. Agnieszka Budzińska-Bennett is a Polish star of impeccable scholarship and performing standards, possessed of a giftfor creating compelling entertainment from early music. There is a welcome touch of theatre about her projects and a sure marketing touch. Her impressively prolific work-rate as performer and artistic director means that a clutch of marvellous new CDs, mostly world premiere recordings, have appeared almost at once, crying out to be reviewed together.

Budzińska-Bennett’s Ensemble Peregrina offers glorious solo and ensemble chant-singing, exemplary in style and vocal commitment, based on deep liturgical knowledge. Their powerful yet translucent tones adorn monody and early polyphony, supported by vielle, cittern, and symphonie, for this 14th- to 16th- century repertoire, which includes tributes to Swedish saints and Finnish devotional songs. Mare Balticum vol.2 – Medieval Finland and Sweden was produced SACD ‘real surround sound’ and it’s a worthy successor to the fabulous volume 1 (reviewed in this column in October 2019), inspiring exquisite anticipation of the two discs still to follow.

Music of the Polish renaissance has been on the British choral radar for a few years, largely due to recent recordings by The Sixteen of Latin liturgical works. What about home-grown Polish performers, though, singing works in the vernacular? Here’s a feast, beginning with Sub Ursae – Under the Northern Sky , a world premiere recording of the complete works of Wacław z Szamotuł (Venceslaus Schamotulinus). Highly respected in his time, his Latin motets were published in Nuremberg alongside those of Lassus, Gombert, Josquin et al. There’s an elegance to this composer’s counterpoint and Budzińska-Bennett encourages a wide range of expression from the eight-voice Cracow Singers. Some characterful works in Polish (the terpsichorean paraphrase of Psalm 1, for example) are given racy interpretations. Material in Latin includes a fascinating set of Lamentations, and the recording has great clarity and presence.

There’s a debate about whether the composer Mikołaj Gomółka was a Protestant or a Catholic with ecumenical leanings. His magnum opus is a Psalter in the vernacular, and to record it all is a major project. There are two double albums out already: Mikołaj Gomółka Opera Omnia vols. 1 & 2 (Psalms of the Pilgrims and Morning and Evening Psalms), Mikołaj Gomółka Opera Omnia vols. 3 & 4 (Thanksgiving and Penitential Psalms and Royal Psalms), with more volumes to come. The colour of the Polish language, so authentically sung, makes for gripping listening, and members of the Choir of Polish Radio in various lively combinations are enthusiastic advocates. While their intonation can be wayward, their unflagging enthusiasm, with a raw edge to the male voices, communicates energy and immediacy. There’s a wonderful variety of scorings: consort, choral, accompanied, solo ‘lute song’, with harp, renaissance guitar, lute, viol consort, percussion. Some arrangements are positively funky: Psalm 129 (‘With a thousand vexations’) sounds almost Iberian. Today’s leading interpreters will challenge with reinvention and there’s no doubt that Budzińska-Bennett has brought this repertoire to spirited life. The recording quality has depth and breadth, captured mostly in the Royal Castle of Niepołomice, and the excellent booklets include English translations

While Budzińska-Bennett is the artistic director on all these projects, her principal collaborator, lutenist Marc Lewon (both are alumni of the celebrated Schola Cantorum Basiliensis), is a significant, virtuosic presence throughout. Budzińska-Bennett has recently been awarded two medals in honour of her work: The Decoration of Honour Meritorious for Polish Culture and Silver Cross of Lesser Poland – she’s becoming a national treasure!

REBECCA TAVENER Read the full review on Agora Classica


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