A neglected 18th-century masterpiece, written in St Petersburg to mark the death of an exiled king, is about to be rescued from dusty obscurity. Polish composer Józef Kozłowski’s Requiem in E flat minor will soon be vividly revived and republished, regaining its place in the repertoire, thanks to pioneering investigative work carried out not in Eastern Europe but in Singapore.

Józef Kozłowski’s Requiem first edition, published in c.1804
© University of Warsaw Library

On 7th April, the Singapore Symphony Orchestra, Chorus and Youth Choir, joined by an impressive line-up of soloists, will give the Asian premiere of the Requiem. Extensive research and editing by conductor Hans Graf has resulted in a new Urtext edition, to be published and recorded by the orchestra and made available for other ensembles around the world to discover.

Graf’s five months of meticulous editing came about after tragedy struck a planned performance of the Requiem in the orchestra’s 2020/21 season. Hans Sørensen, head of artistic planning, takes up the story: “The Kozłowski Requiem was a piece I knew about but had only heard first time around 2018, in the then only recorded version”, by the Moscow State Choir with the USSR Ministry of Culture Symphony Orchestra, under Vladimir Yesipov. “That version is a bit heavy, with added percussion and a few additions. When I heard it, I was really surprised how good it was. The Lacrimosa movement is on the same musical level as Haydn and Mozart. I decided to programme it as soon I could get my hands on the score and parts.”

Józef Kozłowski’s Requiem, holograph manuscript
© IMSLP | Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin

“It was a big challenge, as it turned out that the Requiem was not available from any publisher”, Sørensen continues. “I had to do some detective work, and by a stroke of luck I got in contact with a library in St Petersburg that had stocked the three original copies of the score. I managed to get a copy and then asked Alexander Vedernikov if he would be interested in conducting and recording the Requiem.”

But, tragically, before any work could begin Vedernikov contracted Covid-19 and died from complications associated with it. Shocked and saddened, the orchestra shelved the project, but when it was possible to programme it again, Sørensen asked Maestro Graf if he would take it over.

Alexander Vedernikov (1964–2020)
© Marco Borggreve

Graf says he became fascinated by the work and sought to find out more about the composer. Kozłowski arrived in St Petersburg in 1786, where his talents were spotted by Prince Grigory Potemkin, who introduced him to the court. There he worked with Dmitry Bortnyansky, director of the imperial orchestra and choir. In 1797, the Polish King Stanisław II was exiled to St Petersburg. The next year, when he knew he was dying, he commissioned Kozłowski to write a Requiem for him.

So what is it like? At first hearing it sounds very European, with harmonic conventions that we would associate with the sacred works of Haydn and Mozart (the Tuba Miram, Confutatis and Lacrimosa especially so) but as Graf points out, Kozłowski would not have known the Mozart Requiem, which was unpublished until 1804.

The only available recording of Kozłowski’s work is of a later revision and expansion made by Kozłowski in 1825 to mark the death from typhus of Tsar Alexander I. “He beefed up the 1798 original, adding extra instrumentation, setting the woodwinds in high octaves, changing some of the choruses and adding extra movements”, says Graf.

Hans Graf conducts
© Singapore Symphony Orchestra

Sørensen and Graf obtained the St Petersburg piano score of 1798 and the autograph first edition from Leipzig, also from 1798, and over the course of five months Graf reconstructed the work from these sources to produce an authentic, modern performing score. This strips out the 1825 additions, including a grand funeral march and an ornate Salve Regina movement which, he points out, is anachronistic, because it is only usually included in a bishop’s funeral rite.

“I don’t know what brought him to choose E flat minor as his key,” Graf says, “but the psychology of tonality was important at the time. For instance, Mozart was very clear: E flat major is royal; D minor and G minor were personal. E flat minor – rarely used – is probably fate, submission.”

The Moscow State Choir and USSR Ministry of Culture Symphony perform Kozłowski’s Requiem in 1988.

One of the many striking things about the USSR recording is the quintessentially Russian low E flat which the chorus basses reach right at the opening and beyond, but Graf discovered this was not in the original 1798 score: Kozłowski added it when augmenting the piece for the Tsar’s funeral in 1825.

Graf also discovered that the original score has many French annotations, reflecting the language of the Court of St Petersburg at the time. He is also ensuring that the choir will be singing with soft pronunciation of the Latin: for instance, Arnus dei, rather than the hard-G Agnus dei that features so jarringly in the Soviet recording.

Olga Peretyatko
© Michael Pöhl

The Singapore Symphony has engaged four soloists for the premiere: Olga Peretyatko, soprano, Olesya Petrova, mezzo-soprano, Boris Stepanov, tenor, and Christoph Seidl, bass. Graf chuckles that the soloists might be slightly disappointed with his Urtext score as their music is less florid than the 1825 revision, but he is confident they will enjoy being part of the rehabilitation of the piece. He is also pleased with chorus rehearsals so far, under director Eudenice Palaruan, alongside the Singapore Symphony Youth Choir, under choirmaster Wong Lai Foon. “Such good intonation, so many good voices.”

Youth Choir soprano Raeanne Wong says: “While Kozłowski’s requiem is technically demanding, the greater challenge lies beyond its technical rigour. I found myself constantly being challenged to bring out the depth of emotion that this masterpiece stands for, and developed a greater sense of awe through the process. I can’t wait to bring this new premiere to Singapore.”

Singapore Symphony and Chorus
© Singapore Symphony Orchestra

Graf says he will have to work hard to prevent the orchestra playing too loud, as the 1798 original is very low for the sopranos, but he is convinced that his revival follows the original intentions of the composer. “One of the sensational things about this music is the way the final movement fades into nothing, with only a faint double bass and the soprano holding on one note. The tenors go in thirds and do a diminuendo. It’s humility in front of death: it’s the perfect death.”

How does Sørensen think the work will be received in Singapore? “We have a young, educated audience as music and the arts have a high emphasis here. They are very curious and open to all types of music. For our first concert this year, we premiered Claus Ogerman’s Symbiosis and a suite by Palle Mikkelborg, originally written for the Bill Evans jazz trio and symphony orchestra, and we saw a lot of new faces in the audience, all being very open to this not-so-traditional programme.” He adds that having the 16-year-old violin sensation and Menuhin prizewinner Chloe Chua as Artist-In-Residence this season also helps bring new fans to classical music and to the SSO.

Hans Graf
© Bryan van der Beek

Are there plans to revive other neglected works by Kozłowski? “Not yet”, says Graf, “though I hope to be an ambassador for him. But of course, the music is ambassador for itself.”

Hans Graf and the Singapore Symphony Orchestra and Chorus will perform Józef Kozłowski’s Requiem in E flat minor on 7th April at the Esplanade Concert Hall. This article was sponsored by Singapore Symphony Orchestra.