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Aleksander KOŚCIÓW (b.1974)
String Quartet No.10 [18:01]
String Quartet No.9 [13:32]
String Quartet No.6 [17:47]
String Quartet No.5 [10:58]
String Quartet No.3 [14:37]
Neo Quartet (Karolina Piątkowska-Nowicka (violin I), Paweł Kapica (violin II), Michał Markiewicz (viola), Krzysztof Pawłowski (cello))
rec. Polskie Wydawnictwo Muzyczne concert hall, Warsaw, Poland, 16-18 April 2014.
DUX 1171 [74:56]

There was a time when, had I chanced upon anything on the radio that in any way resembled music such as this, I would have reached for the off button as quick as sugar slides off a shovel. That is the fascinating thing about listening to music, in that over time everything you hear slightly alters your perceptions. Eventually you may reach a plateau on which you find music you once regarded as unacceptable has become something you can actually enjoy. I know that I have certainly been on that journey.

I first became aware of this phenomenon when, as I seemed to find myself doing every five or ten years, I replayed a jazz record I bought in the 1960s for 7/6 (37.5p). Right through the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. I still found it jarred with me but I’m glad I was too stubborn to chuck it out because suddenly about 15 years ago I played it again and was astonished to find I liked it and even more amazingly couldn’t figure out why I had found it so difficult to get on with for all those years. Likewise whereas I’d have given very short shrift to music like Kościów’s in the past, listening today I find it extremely exciting and can’t wait to replay it over and over again.

The Tenth String Quartet in Kościów’s chamber output is a fascinating work. It is made up of eight sections with the instruction to the musicians of any quartet playing it that they should feel free to programme as many or as few as they wish. This rather implies that there is no single idea behind them that binds them together. They should be viewed as ‘microscopies’ which are images produced by powerful microscopes that are able to focus on objects and on areas of a given surface that cannot be seen by the naked eye and that ‘take over’ the entire picture. This operates in a similar way to when we are shown the images of cancers that look so beautiful and appealing belying their true nature and presumably which are also classed as microscopies. This process shows that focusing in on things that are normally impossible to see reveals aspects that one would otherwise never be aware of and which can totally change perceptions. Whether these eight pieces could be considered ‘movements’ or standalone quartets matters not to me anyway. Each is appealing in its own right and I really enjoyed hearing them. In the opening of Kymakome I heard echoes of Pavel Haas’s quartet No.2 From the Monkey Mountains, while in subsequent pieces I could hear things that suggested an influence of Arvo Pärt. These are merely impressions and do not imply any particular influence.

Kościów’s Ninth Quartet is a single movement work as are two of the others. There is some richly dense writing in the middle of the quartet that excites and intrigues in equal measure. In the last third I detected shades of Steve Reich’s Different Trains simply because of the ‘minimalist’ method of continuously repeating notes, something which again years ago when I first came across minimalism I found intensely annoying and sometimes still do.

The Sixth Quartet is cast in a much more ‘conventional’ fashion within its two movement framework. The music grows more organically. I had a strong feeling that Arvo Pärt really was an influence here in the opening and throughout the second movement but that’s no bad thing since a composer like him has a lot to teach the young composers of today. There is a lot of keenly felt emotion at work in this music. It exerts a powerful presence and makes for a sobering experience.

Minimalism is a motivating force in the Fifth Quartet and it is easy to imagine the attraction of this method of composition to the young 25 year old Kościów in 1999. It seemed then as if ‘everybody’ was doing it or, at least, some really ‘big’ names in the classical music world from Reich and Glass to John Adams. For me it is mostly a question of whether or not the composer over-eggs the pudding and that the sequence of repeated notes does not overstay its welcome; that it moves on or develops. For me Kościów just about manages it before I find myself thinking ‘move along please!’ As it is it still keeps my interest to the end.

The final quartet on the disc is Kościów’s Third from 1997. It shows a composer of 23 with an extremely fertile imagination. Kościów’s musical language in the quartets on this disc is generally speaking bleak and disturbed without much let-up in terms of resolution or periods of calm. Don’t expect many upbeat jolly tunes full of Polish folklore; this is music that demands to be heard and that requires full concentration. His third quartet is a good example. Beginning with a relentless onslaught of notes the music eventually quietens and becomes stark in the extreme with single notes emitted from two of the instruments for some little time. Gradually in the quartet’s final third the musicians come together again but in subdued form in comparison with the opening. The work ends almost in a whisper.

Kościów is a composer who has a lot to say and has found an intriguing way of expressing himself. The Neoquartet are to be congratulated for presenting the music so effectively; this cannot be easy to play and must require a great deal of rehearsal. I am motivated to explore more of Kościów’s chamber music and look forward to discovering any orchestral music he may have composed. This is a disc of music that is really worth getting to know.

Steve Arloff



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