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The 1050th Anniversary of the Baptism of Poland Inaugurated in London
Karol Szymanowski's Stabat Mater concert, conducted by Vladimir Jurowski, Royal Festival Hall, London, 5th March 2016, photo: Mariona Vilarós / IAM
Karol Szymanowski's Stabat Mater concert, conducted by Vladimir Jurowski, Royal Festival Hall, London, 5th March 2016, photo: Mariona Vilarós / IAM

The London Philharmonic Orchestra's rendition of Karol Szymanowski's Stabat Mater inaugurated the celebration of the 1,050th anniversary of the baptism of Poland. In attendance was Piotr Gliński, Poland’s Minister of Culture and National Heritage.

Besides Szymanowski's composition, the concert at the Royal Festival Hall in London also featured Pyotr Tchaikovsky's Symphony no. 3 (known as ‘the Polish symphony’) and Alexander von Zemlinsky's Six Maeterlinck Songs.

During a pre-concert ceremony, Minister Gliński said:

Christianity as a culture, set of values and laws, constitutes the most characteristic strand of Polish and European culture, and Western culture in general. The main composition of the evening is Stabat Mater, a composition about sacrifice and suffering, but I believe that Christianity – through that suffering – leads us towards love; towards that which constitutes the key to faith and the basis of the celebration of this anniversary.

According to BBC Music Magazine, the London Philharmonic Orchestra (LPO) is one of the best and most prestigious orchestras worldwide. Founded in 1932, its concerts are attended by tens of thousands every year, and enjoyed by up to 2.5 million people worldwide through records and online broadcasts.

Paweł Potoroczyn, director of the Adam Mickiewicz Institute (IAM), which promotes Polish culture abroad under the auspices of the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage, commented:

Today’s concert is the tangible effect of more than ten years of investment in  the promotion of Szymanowski's comeback to world-class concert halls and venues which this composer and Polish culture deserve.

The IAM director added:

As the result of this investment, many orchestras now choose to perform Szymanowski's music without further encouragement on our part: they have decided that it is a wise decision repertoire-wise, that the fact the best in the world play [Szymanowski's music] and sell out tickets, means that it is worth presenting.

On Saturday, the London orchestra was led by one of the best conductors in the world, 43-year-old Russian maestro Vladimir Jurowski, who has described himself as a ‘big admirer of Szymanowski's music’.

British broadsheet newspaper The Times gave the concert a full five stars in its review, calling the Stabat Mater 'one of the 20th century’s most unfairly neglected masterpieces'. The Telegraph also gave the concert a glowing review:

Szymanowski’s Stabat Mater felt burningly pure. Despite their glittering carapace of Twenties modernism, the melodies were simple and folk-like, a quality brought out by the radiantly innocent sound of soprano Elżbieta Szmytka. That, and the amazingly intense singing of the London Philharmonic Choir gave the whole piece a rapturous air, as if two different worlds had been fixed in one dazzling, impossible image. No wonder we all sat stunned at the end, reluctant to let the dream go.

Popular London-based music website MusicOMH also gave the concert a five-star review:

The hushed, quietly devotional, fourth movement was sung with the kind of ‘peasant’ simplicity that Szymanowski intended, while the fifth movement thundered forwards with an apocalyptic urgency. All three soloists, chorus and orchestra were united in the final section, with its tender, but troublingly ominous, message of resignation and acceptance.

Timothy Walker, Chief Executive and Artistic Director of the LPO, emphasised that the decision to organise the concert was the result of the orchestra's long-term collaboration with the Adam Mickiewicz Institute. As part of the collaboration, the British musicians performmusic by Polish composers not only in the United Kingdom, but also in prominent concert halls on the continent, e.g. in Brussels and Frankfurt.

Moreover, each year one selected Polish composer takes part in an elite six-person scholarship, which provides a chance to work with the best musicians in the world. In the 2015/2016 edition, the scholarship was awarded to Katarzyna Krzewińska, a graduate of the Music Academy in Kraków and in Wrocław.

In the past, the London Philharmonic Orchestra has performed music by Witold Lutosławski and Henryk Mikołaj Górecki, and even performed a series of 24 Szymanowski concerts in Europe.

The Saturday concert inaugurated the year of the 1,050th anniversary of the baptism of Poland, during which the Adam Mickiewicz Institute – via the special 966 project – will promote Polish sacral music and present the significance of the baptism for the county’s history.

The anniversary will also be celebrated by the Polish Cultural Institute and the Polish Embassy in London, which are planning a concert by The Sixteen, a music ensemble that has performed at the BBC Proms and Sydney Opera House. At the beginning of May, London will also see a special celebratory mass attended by Cardinal Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster.

For 2017, the London Philharmonic Orchestra is planning to prepare a rendition of St. Luke's Passion, a masterpiece of 20th century Polish music composed by Krzysztof Penderecki in the 1960s.

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Source: PAP, The Times, The Telegraph, MusicOMH, compiled by MŚ, translated by OK, 7 Mar 2016. Updated by AZ, 10 Mar 2016.