THE publicity image for this year’s edition of Mistera Paschalia, the Holy Week festival of early music in Poland’s old royal capital, Krakow, was quite bold, but very precisely evocative. It was of “burning the candle at both ends”, which might seem very appropriate for those familiar with the hedonism of Edinburgh in August or the late night sessions at Glasgow’s Celtic Connections.

But Misteria Paschalia (the Mystery of the Passion) is tied closely to the Christian celebration of Easter and while the flame at the top of the candle clearly referenced those lit in churches throughout the city for Easter Sunday services, the snuffed out wick below appeared to represent something altogether darker. I heard no criticism of it from the faithful, however, and there are many of them in Krakow.

We are today very used to the idea that commerce and communication have produced a homogeneous culture across the Western world and in Europe in particular, current divisions on the value of economic union notwithstanding.

To visit Poland at Easter, however, is to experience a world where Christian religion still occupies a much more central role in society. In fact there are those of a Eurosceptic mind there who will tell you that Poland’s referendum vote to join the EU was decisively influenced by the proposition having the support of the then Pope, local hero John Paul II. The image of Karol J Wojtyla is still present everywhere in the city, which is full of the most beautiful, ornate and art-filled church buildings – and those buildings were filled by congregations celebrating communion over last weekend. The Catholic Church in Poland has a unique liturgical identity that even a Scottish Presbyterian with no Polish could recognise, and there was no sign of the mass settings by the great composers that are guaranteed an outing in the more musically literate churches of the Catholic, Anglican and Episcopalian traditions in the UK. So for that alone, Misteria Paschalia is filling an obvious gap.

The focus in this year’s festival was on music from the British Isles, much of that provided by Scotland’s Dunedin Consort, conducted by Misteria Paschalia’s Resident artistic director for 2018, John Butt.

The festival began with the greatest Easter oratorio of all, Handel’s Messiah, the work established the reputation of the ensemble when Butt’s version of it was recorded on Glasgow’s Linn record label. It ended with the same team, joined by the Polish Radio Choir, performing the same composer’s Ode for St Cecilia’s Day, his dedication to the artform’s saintly patron that vigorously extols what Leonard Bernstein was to call The Infinite Variety of Music some two centuries later. With Linn engineer Philip Hobbs in attendance, it will be a forthcoming release from sessions that were recorded in Krakow’s excellent ICE Congress Centre hall during the visit.

There are even grander recording plans in the mind of Professor Butt for Handel’s Samson, which those forces performed on Easter Sunday, but the drama of that work and the characteristic theatricality of tenor Ian Bostridge’s performance of the Purcell and Haydn Arias and Odes the following night were arguably outshone by the Saturday evening concert by La Poeme Harmonique and Les Cris de Paris directed by Vincent Dumestre. In a programme that they had made earlier, entitled Son of England: English Funeral Music of the 17th Century, they brought a freewheeling French style to music by Jeremiah Clarke, celebrating the life of Henry Purcell, and Purcell, marking the death of Queen Mary II. With much processing, exits and entrances by instrumentalists as well as soloists and chorus, the concert brought real visual flair to the material, and a refreshingly unstuffy approach to notions of early music authenticity.

As much as the temple-demolishing climax of the Dunedin Consort’s Samson, this was the event that corresponded most closely to that memorable poster image for this year’s festival. In a way that few arts events achieve, the young team behind Misteria Paschalia can take a huge amount of credit for making something that so clearly adds a significant new layer to an established part of the national cultural life in Poland. That it is rewarded with large and enthusiastic audiences should be no surprise.