The theme of Polish music running subtly throughout this year’s BBC Proms is mostly evident through late 19th- and 20th-century repertoire: Szymanowski, Tchaikovsky’s “Polish” Symphony, lots of Lutosławski. Perhaps oddly, Chopin hasn’t featured at all. But the thrillseeker’s highlight from the Polish theme was surely this Cadogan Hall concert by the Huelgas Ensemble, which featured nothing but obscure music from Poland in the 15th and 16th centuries.

Paul van Nevel; image by Michiel Hendryckx
Paul van Nevel; image by Michiel Hendryckx

The Huelgas Ensemble, founded (in 1971) and conducted by Paul van Nevel, specialises in programmes tied closely to a particular time and place, usually from the Middle Ages or Renaissance. On this occasion, ten singers were joined by seven instrumentalists, playing historical instruments, naturally, including a viola da gamba, a violone and some marvellously large recorders. Their small, neat programme ranged from an anonymous Latin ode addressed to the city of Krakow, through motets in a moderately conventional European late Renaissance style, to a startlingly dissonant setting of a Petrarch sonnet. Their performance had a disarming gentleness to it, propelled along genially by the bouncy, happy conducting of van Nevel.

Not all the music was by Polish composers: there were two motets by Johannes Wanning (1537–1603), who was born in the Netherlands, as well as two pieces by Luca Marenzio (1553/4–99), an Italian – though one who spent several years at the court of the Polish King Sigismund III. Christoph Demantius (1567–1643), meanwhile, was a Bohemian composer among the first to adopt elements of Polish folk music into his compositions, and he was represented here by a short suite of instrumental dances. Only Mikołaj Zieleński (fl. 1611) and Krzysztof Klabon (c. 1550–c. 1616), and possibly the two anonymous 15th-century pieces performed at the start, represented “indigenous” Poland – but the programme overall, presumably deliberately, gave the impression of Poland at this time as a more internationally inclined hub than we might assume today. The quality of the music made there, clearly, was high enough to make it a force to contend with around Europe.

Among the music played and sung this afternoon, the most striking was Marenzio’s setting of a Petrarch sonnet which opens with the lines “Solo e pensoso i più deserti campi / bò misurando a passi tardi e lenti” (“Alone and lost in thought, I wander the most desolate lands with slow and halting steps”). “Slow and halting steps” is a gift for any composer, but Marenzio’s word-painting in this opening section is remarkable nonetheless: he gives a high voice a very slow chromatic scale, which rises far higher than you expect it to and then falls back down a few notes as well. The other parts provide florid counterpoints to this, making for an exceptionally striking start. The following twelve lines are set to music less immediately distinctive, but deeply affecting, and the simplicity of the end is beautiful.

This distinctive, varying piece was well suited to the Huelgas Ensemble’s style, too: van Nevel would seem to encourage individuality of tone among his singers, as the sound which results is a wonderful, ever-changing blend of voices, far more interesting to hear than the sort of uniform, even texture that some early music groups champion. In most of the vocal pieces on the programme, the singers were joined by instrumentalists, presumably playing in arrangements concocted by van Nevel and the ensemble themselves. This was always done with the utmost taste, often in order to extend the length of otherwise rather short pieces – the two closing works by Klabon, for instance, were really just single verses, but repeated many times for different combinations of players, bringing out their elegance more clearly.

There’s no doubt that there was a wealth of research and scholarship behind this programme, and it was a little disappointing not to have any more explanation regarding the history behind it all, beyond a few brief introductory comments and the texts reproduced in the programme. The link between Johannes Wanning and Poland, for instance, still eludes me. But perhaps what’s most commendable about the Huelgas Ensemble’s whole enterprise is that I now want to know more about this subject: there’s surely no better way to spark an audience’s curiosity than through such passionate advocacy as theirs.