Not many of us will have heard of Rafal Augustyn outside Poland,
but his organisational energies have contributed to numerous
festivals and he is active both as a music critic on national
media and in occasional performances as a pianist. He studied
composition with Ryszard Bukowski at Wroclaw University, and
continued those studies in Katowice with Henryk Mikolaj Górecki.
The works in this programme represent a thirty year period of
creative activity, and form a fascinating overview and insight
into Rafal Augustyn’s music. Perhaps problems of categorisation
have some connection with his profile abroad. The music is neither
tonal or ‘new spiritual’, nor in its intellectual approach does
it fit neatly in a line from other Polish greats such as Penderecki
or Lutoslawski. It is however of the highest quality and filled
with expressive power, and it is to be hoped that this excellent
CD will contribute much to his wider recognition.
The String Quartet No.1 was written while Augustyn was
still a student, and does betray some influence in Lutoslawski
in the sliding strings of the first of the three movements.
There is a great deal more at work than exploration of texture
however, and layers of ideas and rhythmic motifs in a transparent
interaction between the instruments results in an attractive
musical intrigue. The second movement Canone is particularly
fine, with a sense of open expressiveness and atmosphere which
is very compelling. The third movement reminds me a little of
Berio in places, with shifts in perspective between proximity
and distance coupled with conspiratorial conversations. The
spirit of Bartók can perhaps also be discerned, but more as
a technical guide than as a source of material to be plundered.
The String Quartet No.2 is intriguingly marked as being
‘with flute ad libitum’. You’d think this would be a tricky
element to leave out, but the flute is added as mysterious extra
colour, hiding amongst the strings and providing effects which
can at times sound like a pipe organ, elsewhere like a strange
electronic sine-wave. Used sparingly, it acts like a blue thread
at the heart of the piece – a highlight of metallic sheen amongst
the wooden bows and soundboxes of the stringed instruments.
The work is both an expressive statement and a kind of exploratory
voyage over a single extended movement – hard to describe in
words, but in which it is easy to become completely absorbed.
Zubel is a name I’ve come across as a composer in her own
right, and her contribution in Dedication is sublime.
The vocal part uses a text by Apollinaire, and the booklet describes
a rather alcohol-suffused anecdote out of which this compact
“musica serio but a touch buffo” arose. Initially rich in pizzicato
and lower sonorities, the slow, high lyrical lines of the voice
see the notes of the strings climbing in an attempt to greet
it like invisible ivy. Do ut des is a real miniature,
dedicated to the quartet which performs it here, and creating
another fascinating rummage amongst the strings, the title hiding
a thematic meaning which flows like oil into any number of personal
allusions and references.
The final piece on the disc, Grand jeté. Quartet No. 2½,
is a masterpiece to which I could listen endlessly. It adds
concrete recorded sounds and electronic noises to music which
was originally for a documentary about a dancer, Wojciech Wiesiollowski.
The music follows the dancer’s footsteps through Europe and
Russia and very much creates the feeling of a musical and literal
journey, sometimes creating surrealist allusions to classic
concert and ballet music, adding speech, street noises, natural
sounds and a whole raft of other pre-recorded material. The
electronics are a servant to the music; usually subtly integrated
and often related to and playing off the pre-recorded sounds.
Augustyn’s mature chamber music combines the narrative qualities
and expressive refinement of someone like Janácek, bringing
it into a world which is both personal and quasi-eclectic. By
‘quasi’ I mean an eclecticism is that born of intellectual hunger
and an intelligent ear for musical imagination and the realities
of expression, rather than one which goes on aural shopping
sprees to find fresh material. Augustyn’s is an original voice,
but one which stands in respectful proximity to giants – not
so much on their shoulders, but in readiness to use their ashes
to spark and ignite new directions. The music here is challenging,
but in no way aversively so. The challenge is to keep abreast
of the mind behind the music, an exercise which I found most
stimulating. The performance of the Silesian Quartet on this
superbly rich and transparent recording is a highlight in its
own right. They deserve awards, and lots of them.