Holy Week is a time for taking stock. For quiet acts of memory and devotion, of preparation for the feast to come. The city of Kraków is no different in this regard from other reservoirs of Catholic faith around the world. On Holy Saturday morning, votive candles spring up like crocuses in the gardens of the Carmelite Church.
Down the broad boulevard of Holy Virgin Mary Avenue running through the nearby pilgrim town of Częstochowa, there is a sotto voce hum of anticipation, rising to mezzo-forte in the covered market where wives and mothers lay in supplies for Sunday lunch: pork, apples, lacy Easter tablecloths. Walk another mile, however, and silence reigns on the green hill not far away, in the Shrine of the Black Madonna, at the centre of the Jasna Góra Monastery.
A different window on the state of grace at Jasna Góra opens each night of Holy Week in Kraków as it hosts the Misteria Paschalia festival. For these seven days the city becomes an Oxford Circus of the early music world. Through its hotels pass the singers and conductors who have defined Bach, Handel and Monteverdi for modern audiences: René Jacobs, Jordi Savall, Les Arts Florissants.
It’s big news. The churches and concert halls are packed, the audiences diverse, hungry and informed. Depending on the state of your Polish, you can eavesdrop on earnest post-concert conversations in the wine bars of the Jewish Quarter. Last year I saw the festival’s director Filip Berkowicz speak live to Polish television before the festival’s annual Saturday concert in the Chapel of St Kinga, carved from rock salt 300 feet underground at the Wieliczka mine.
Berkowicz was the restlessly brilliant mind behind the festival for 13 years. Now he is gone, replaced by the more urbane Robert Piaskowski. The Mezzo TV culture channel is a new partner, streaming several concerts to audiences worldwide. For the first time there is a resident ensemble: Le Poème Harmonique, a Normandy-based group of singers and instrumentalists led with irrepressible enthusiasm by Vincent Dumestre. They open the week, inevitably, with Monteverdi, on the 450th anniversary of his birth: not the ubiquitous Vespers but the less familiar, no less scintillating textures of his Selva morale e spirituale.
As artistic director, Dumestre has built a programme “in the image of the triptych”, he told me, while bearing in mind that rediscoveries are the lifeblood of the festival. Three works on the theme of Vanitas include the Brockes Passion of Telemann, another anniversary composer though one barely noticed in Britain. A cycle of three French leçons de ténèbres takes place over the Triduum in the late-night, candlelit setting of St Catherine’s Church, and each performed by a different, young French ensemble.
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