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Paweł SZYMAŃSKI (b.1954)
Five Pieces for String Quartet (1992) [18:14]
Four Pieces for String Quartet (2013) [20:25]
Two Pieces for String Quartet (1982) [15:55]
Paweł MYKIETYN (b.1971)
String Quartet No.2 (2006) [12:17]
Royal String Quartet (Izabella Szałaj-Zimak, Elwira Przybłowska (violins), Marek Czech (viola), Michał Pepol (cello))
rec. Potton Hall, Dunwich, Suffolk, England, 2014
HYPERION CDA68085 [66:53]

"The official titles of the works performed here are not helpful: what they conceal are the most extraordinary soundworlds from two composers at the vanguard of the contemporary Polish music scene, and the magicians of the Royal String Quartet summon from their instruments sounds of collective and individual wonder. This is music to grab the attention of its audience—whether willing or not—and it will leave listeners emphatically having chosen a side of the fence." So writes the Hyperion publicity machine. I'm still trying to work out exactly what "sounds of individual and collective wonder" are but throwing down the gauntlet to challenge a listener not to sit on a musical fence worked and that was why I requested this disc to review. In that sense I am a little disappointed because the music presented here is not quite as radically challenging as the quote above might suggest.

What we do have is a superbly performed disc of interesting contemporary string quartet music delivered with Hyperion's usual high production values. I had not heard the Royal String Quartet before and they seem to be becoming something of the label's Polish music specialists with discs of Górecki, Penderecki, Lutosławski, Szymanowski and Różycki. To which list must now be added works by Szymański and Mykietyn who are probably the least known of them all outside their native land. The bulk of the disc is given over to three sets of works by Paweł Szymański and they span nearly thirty years of the composer's life. They share more characteristics than not. Szymański chooses to avoid any kind of titles - even tempo indications - that might provide a hint for the listener at anything except absolute music. The movements are distinguished by bald and exact tempo indications only - crochet [quarter note] = 72 or quaver [eighth note] = 60 for example. Yet the different sections prove to be very individual and very well characterised. Szymański is happy to draw on various musical influences; ancient to modern, which he then distils into something deeply personal.

The set of Five Pieces from 1992 opens the disc and in fact it was the group I enjoyed the most. The work opens with a phrase that could be from a distorted baroque French Overture. Having barely stated this Szymański fractures the music and obsesses on one cadential figure from it. Then the notes smear in unison glissandi while individual instruments still fixate on the baroque idea. The extremely high quality of the playing is instantly apparent but allied to that virtuosity is a passionate intensity that lifts this away from being 'just' cerebral contemporary music into something much more engaging and interesting. The use of harmonics is a recurring feature - not just the glassy bell-like ones commonly heard but also the harsher overtones generated by excess string pressure. Towards the end of the first movement the cello is left hammering into his open C string in a way that leaves the instrument ringing with all kinds of strange extra resonances. The following movement could not be more of a contrast - it starts with a naively cheerful little figure - almost like a school playground song which is then chased around the rest of the instruments. Some extra technical details are revealed here - a phenomenal degree of ensemble playing by the quartet - Szymański likes to create figures that chase each other with little or no sense of pulse. He also writes in such a way that the ensemble seems to phase in and out of co-ordination. For the players to achieve that effectively relies on intense concentration and accuracy of rhythmic execution. Add to that a huge dynamic range from faintest wisp of tone to volcanic upheaval and it makes for a dramatic listening experience. All of this is superbly caught in typically high quality sound by engineer Simon Eadon and producer Andrew Keener. They have managed to separate spatially the quartet particularly effective. When needed their sound is blended and very sonorous but across the stereo spread individual instruments are very clearly placed. Given Szymański's playful predilection for placing the viola above the violin on occasion this helps the listener track these musical games. If the opening section is an overture, and the second movement a scherzo then the quiet chiming harmonics that follow - and another distinctly baroque phrase - seem to belong to a 'slow' movement. Again Szymański seems to juxtapose a pair of contrasting music ideas or textures and then blends them. The fourth movement is a heavy-booted study in C minor arpeggios which obsesses with the chord and almost no change in harmony in a minimalist fashion. Gradually individual instruments break away from the 'party-line' to decorate the bludgeoning chord. One of the most striking effects in the entire work is achieved by the instruments all sounding 'G' octaves in different registers. Here Szymański brings back echoes of the chasing idea he worked with earlier - there is no room for player error - either in ensemble or intonation. Again all credit to the Royal Quartet for their combination of complete technical control and musical engagement. The last movement starts with more obsessing; this time from the lead violin who hacks like some demented morning cockerel at two chords. Slowly the other players enter with still (dawn?) chords which melt through downward glissandi - passing through momentary consonance and baroque-like cadential figuration before reaching a steady pulse the leader deigns to join. She finally comes down - quite literally - off her high perch and the music fades to silence. For a work that steadfastly refuses to 'tell' you anything it seems full of extra-musical allusion; so far I am firmly on the enjoying side of the fence.

Next on the disc is the most recent work - the group of Four Pieces from 2013 dedicated to the Royal String Quartet. The interest is that twenty years on there are more similarities - to the unfamiliar ear at least - than stark differences. By ear alone it is impossible to get any sense of the barlines. Instruments phase in and out of rhythmic and tonal unity: drop an entry at your peril. "Displaced unisons" is the liner-note's neat phrase for this. It also mentions quarter-tone inflections which brings up a paradox. Unless you happen to be blessed (cursed?) by perfect pitch it is actually very hard to 'hear' quarter tones when they are all perfectly played in tune as here. For some reason, I feel this music itself lacks something of the playful wit I enjoyed in the previous work. The slipping rhythms and momentary pauses are reminiscent of those contemporary ballets when all the corps run around with great energy and purpose looking very serious but for no apparent reason. The four pieces run without a break. The second section is more fragmented starting with single pizzicati or bowed notes played peckingly short like random raindrops which gradually coalesce into a collectively played musical phrase. It is in complete contrast to the thick unisons of the preceding section. Again there is a minimalist trait here with small variations in the rocking minor thirds. Szymański spins off into more harmonically complex and deliberately harsh music interspersed with more of his trade-mark melting glissandi. The jarring contrast of quiet stasis and brutal action is again a recurring feature. The closing piece is possibly the most impressive section of the work. I like the lead violin's extended recitative over a simple low chord. Yet again all the instruments slowly melt down through their registers. It is actually very hard indeed to control four separate glissandi over an extended time-frame to achieve the moments of fleeting consonance that Szymański clearly wants. The work ends with a sad unison lament by all four instruments from which the cello divides itself and deserted, plays the last minute or so quite alone.

According to the liner, the earliest work here - the Two Pieces of 1982 - was composed to mark the centenary of Szymanowski. The writer - Adrian Thomas - postulates that the emphasis on E flat (Es in Polish musical terminology) might either refer to the older composer or symbolise the suppressed trade union Solidarity. Harmonics, glissandi and quarter-tones are already key elements of Szymański's musical vocabulary as are the striking contrasts of etiolated stasis and muscular action. In the later works Szymański's handling of the string quartet texture would be subtler and even in the busier passages the various elements register more clearly. Here the writing feels more cluttered. The opening movement runs for just over four minutes and its companion is nearly three times as long. It opens with all the instruments refusing to move far from the gravitational centre of an E flat. Slowly the distance from this centre increases. Again rocking chords and glissandi facilitate this move. Up until this point, nearly four minutes into the movement, there has been almost no rhythmic element to the work aside from the chordal rocking. Gradually there is a sense of the music gaining a pulse. This is another instance of Szymański blurring the traditional roles/registers of the instruments with the cello much higher than the violins. This is a very muted, bleak and extended landscape; quite different from any of the other Szymański music here. They share fingerprints but it is quite striking that in his quartet writing alone he did not choose to explore this path further.

The disc is completed by the String Quartet No.2 of Paweł Mykietyn. This was written in 2006 for the Kronos Quartet and is a concentrated single movement twelve minute work. According to Adrian Thomas micro-tonal writing is the norm and "those brief moments where conventional semitonal tuning dominates seem almost alien." The opening section is dominated by dancing harmonics and very striking. Again it is worth noting just what skill it takes to makes every single harmonic speak with such purity as here. It is very easy to miss one by a millimetre and end up with a squeak. By writing microtonally the moments of traditional consonance seem even more consonant. The contrast of slowly rotating high harmonics and oddly capricious cello pizzicati is rather striking particularly when the violin and cello then introduce folk-like drones and deliberately coarse violin lines that explore the highest register of the instrument. Around the ten minute point Mykietyn sets up a strikingly beautiful ostinato of overlapping harmonics. I am not sure I have ever heard anything quite like it. Not that that makes it 'good' as such but this does have a haunting beauty. Ten seconds or so before the end of the quartet it stops as abruptly as it started and with a last fragmentary group of harmonics the work ends.

Within the amount of time I have been able to devote to this disc I have to say I find some of Mykietyn's writing for strings to be very impressive indeed. What I have not yet been able to do is cohere those sections of instant individuality and skill into a logical whole. My ignorance I am sure, but this registers as sections rather than something complete.

What is not in doubt is the very real quality of this disc. Quite stunning playing from the Royal String Quartet makes as cogent and convincing a case for all the works here as could be imagined. This is all backed up by the typically understated but high-class Hyperion production values. The booklet is printed in the standard tri-lingual format and includes artist biographies as well as Thomas' useful introduction to the works. Certainly this is music that repays repeated and concentrated listening. Admirers of the contemporary string quartet genre will find no fence they need to sit on here.

Nick Barnard