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Blots on the Sun
El DERWID (Witold LUTOSŁAWSKI) (1913-1994)
The Travelling Circus [3:31]
One stop further [5:07]
Childhood days [6:25]
The Witch [3:31]
Love and the World [5:13]
Golden Slippers [3:18]
Long-distance Voyage [8:32]
Today I await no one [6:18]
At the Funfair [4:20]
Blots on the Sun [4:49]
I’ll be around [10:40]
Agata Zubel (vocals); Andrzej Bauer (cello); Cezary Duchnowski (piano, computer)
rec. Polish Radio, 25-30 August 2011
CD ACCORD ACD192-2 [62:14]

Well, here is a surprise. First of all, I wonder how many collectors knew that for a period of about eight years ending in 1963 Witold Lutosławski supplemented his income by composing popular songs. He was not the first composer to do this, nor the last. Nor was he the only one to use a pseudonym. John Ireland transformed himself into the comfortably twee Turlay Royce. Lutosławski decided to be known as El Derwid.
In 2010 I nominated Agata Zubel’s superb Accord recital Poems as a Recording of the Month. I still recommend that disc for an outstandingly fine performance of Copland Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson. Here she is in very different fare. All three of the musicians here are credited with the arrangements of these songs, but I wonder if Duchnowski is not primarily responsible for the extensive electronic elements that feature throughout. The booklet recommends that we listen to these arrangements alongside the originals. I have not done this, I confess, so my exposure to Lutosławski’s popular songs is limited to these arrangements.
Some of them seem to stick pretty closely to the original, allowing the listener to have some idea of what it actually sounds like. There is a fairly heavy electronic presence in the introduction and postlude of “One stop further”, for example, but its tango rhythm and melody are retained once Zubel begins to sing. And how she sings! She really has the measure of the popular style of these songs, just about as far removed as possible from the repertoire of her earlier disc. The accompaniment is highly effective, and though the electronics intrude here too, the piece maintains its period flavour. What’s more, one almost resents the composer his skill at creating a melody so unremarkable, but which nonetheless, and very irritatingly, simply refuses to leave your head for the rest of the day. The first song on the CD, “The Travelling Circus”, on the other hand, seems to retain but little of the original song, with, in its place, a piece of pure electronic music such as might have been composed by any number of figures from the 1960s, had they only today’s infinitely more sophisticated equipment at their disposal. Zubel’s synthesised voice, plus those of the men, intone the words against a cacophonic radiophonic background. I found this an unpromising start to the collection, but I’m so happy to have persevered.
Anyone who has doubts about the suitability of a classically trained voice in this kind of repertoire should hear Agata Zubel in “Childhood Days”, another superb melody with, in this particular case, an absolutely ravishing accompaniment. One is even more taken aback by her performance in “The Witch” - at least I suppose it is her and not one of her masculine companions. This arrangement is about as close to rock as many readers of this website will want to get, and by definition far indeed from the sensibility of Witold Lutosławski. A gentler, more lyrical passage brings just a little contrast.
“Ravishing” is not a word I use lightly, but there are more of those sounds in “Love and the World”, many of them from the cello of Andrzej Bauer. The 1920s dance music character is cleverly retained in “Golden Slippers”, and that in spite of a plethora of sounds that are not 1920s at all. Long held pedal notes and obsessive, repeated rhythms evoke far-away shores in “Long-distance Voyage”, for this listener, the least compelling song of the collection.
Electronically enhanced though it may be, Cezary Duchnowski’s jazz keyboard playing is pretty hot. Just listen to his contribution to “Today I await no one”. This, like many of these arrangements, is highly romantic both in sound and intent. The film Cabaret sometimes seems not so far removed, but the musical content is both more subtle and more substantial here. The recording uses techniques familiar from modern rock or pop sessions. When Miss Zubel is singing quietly, which is frequently and exquisitely the case, she comes up close and whispers in your ear, whereas when she lets rip - as she does once again in this song, making the listener fear for her voice - she is much more distantly placed. The dynamic range is therefore fairly constant, making the disc ideal both for quiet background listening and for neighbour-baiting sessions.
A full (electronic) string section has been bussed in for “At the Funfair”, whereas the song that gives the disc its title is noisy, featuring a fair bit of Broadway Belt. Most of the nearly eleven minutes of the final song are dominated by an obsessive four-note ostinato in the bass, and when this is slightly varied after about four minutes it comes as something of a relief. This song reminds me somewhat of a kind of modern jazz where the performers seem to be improvising for their own pleasure without much thought of the audience. Some expert keyboard riffs and extremely seductive singing do much to dispel my prejudice, however, and this remarkable disc ends with the musicians playing a naughty little trick on the listeners.
The words of all the songs are provided, in Polish and in English translation. I should have liked to talk about the poems in this review, but I’m still waiting for the new glasses that I’ve ordered in order to be able to read the absurdly dim and minuscule script. Fortunately the useful essay by Rafał Augustyn appears in heavier type.
William Hedley