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Tomasz SIKORSKI (1939-1988)
Music in Twilight, for piano and orchestra (1978) [23:58]
Sonant, for piano (1967) [14:52]
Hymnos, for piano (1979) [15:59]
Euphony, for piano (1982) [10:30]
Szábolcs Esztényi (piano: Twilight)
Ewa Guziolek-Tubelewicz (piano)
Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra/Zsolt Nagy
rec. 2006, Philharmonic Concert Hall, Warsaw (Twilight), 2017, Polish Radio Studios, Warsaw
DUX 1466 [65:29]

A glance through the catalogues tells its own story. On a 2013 Dux release, ‘For Tomasz Sikorski’ (DUX 0907), the legendary John Tilbury, British titan of experimental piano music, performs three solo pieces by this Pole with whom the pianist had collaborated during an extended and definitive period of study in Warsaw in the early 1960s. Sikorski is the subject of another tribute album on Dux, the two disc set ‘Solitude of Sounds’ (DUX 0936-0937) which combines a selection of his piano, ensemble and electronic pieces with works by admirers (including the soloist in the concertante work on the present disc). On another disc, ‘Unchained’, on the Bolt label (BR1026) multi-piano works by Sikorski are paired with two notorious pieces by the maverick American Julius Eastman. Sikorski then retains a tenuous presence in the listings thanks, seemingly to the advocacy of influential protégées keen to safeguard his lasting memory.

So who was this man, and is his legacy worthy of preservation? Tomasz Sikorski studied composition with his father Kazimierz (1895-1986 – a symphonist but perhaps better-known as the arranger of the Polish national anthem) and studied piano with Zbigniew Drzewiecki (who also taught Tilbury). In the early 1960s he found himself working at the Experimental Studio of Polish Radio and in 1963 broke through with his work Antiphonies which was premiered at that year’s Warsaw Autumn Festival. This laid the foundation for a corpus of work produced over a 25 year period (until Sikorski’s premature death at the age of 49) which largely seems to be preoccupied with the elemental and essential nature of sound itself. He was himself a pianist and his works most often feature that instrument, indeed on the present disc it has an absolutely central role. Misunderstandings about his music abound – he is often tagged a ‘minimalist’ – while repetition and stasis play a big part in his music in my view it is anything but minimalist. Clearly it was dismissed by many critics during his lifetime as ‘naďve’ and ‘simplistic’ which possibly accounts for its complete obscurity today outside of Poland. To my ears, at no point does it merit these pejorative epithets.
Music in Twilight for piano and orchestra is arguably Sikorski’s largest scale piece. A virile, but brief piano flourish is allowed to fade, before a gong stroke announces a series of trumpet tattoos and bell sequences arranged antiphonally. I found extraordinary beauty and symmetry in this noisy episode. A sequence of weird passagework in the middle range of the piano is then pitted against this ‘noise’. At 7:11 the most significant event in the piece - an indistinct, possibly microtonal chord (on the strings) emerges in the background. The pianist repeats a series of sad, dissonant chordal motifs against this backdrop – judiciously arranged pauses sporadically allow the ‘drone’ to become the foreground. This is among the most lonely, desolate soundscapes I have yet experienced; somehow it is simultaneously affecting and consoling. If Feldman had spent extended periods of his life behind the Iron Curtain during the sixties and seventies this is how his music may have sounded. Eventually the drone broadens to incorporate the sounds of low strings and high winds, like the sound of a distant blizzard. When the piano returns to the fray the drone becomes louder and more obvious, while a choir of brass and wind layer weirdly distorted chords above it. This is broadly how the piece will remain until the end – in a kind of stasis. Ultimately the drone fades and dies, agonisingly slowly.

Music of Twilight patently is not a piano concerto. What it actually is only the listener can decide. For me It evoked powerful feelings of association and nostalgia, of loss and mortality. It has ‘Important 20th Century Landmark Work’ written all over it, whether one actually likes it or not. I certainly did. It is a challenging but not harsh listen. I found its hypnotic beauty siren-like: it compelled me, almost dared me to enter into its singular and dark world.

The Dux notes provide some fleetingly interesting anecdotes of the composer from friends and colleagues and discuss his ‘style’ but tell us very little about the four pieces presented on the disc. The first of the three solo piano works here, Sonant is built upon the decay and attack of a repeated, almost nagging two note motif. In the programme of the concert at which it was premiered in 1967, Sikorski wrote (as quoted in the notes): ‘It’s a piece based on the contrast between attack and note sustain. The structure of the work, primarily its organisation in time (fermatas, approximate values depending each time on the sonic quality of the piano) but also the “form” (stability, repetitiveness of structures etc) are all consequences of breaking the sound matter of Sonant into two layers: the attack and the sustain.’ In fact even without knowing as much, it is those very characteristics to which one’s ear is most naturally drawn. For example at the 9:00 mark a gradual crescendo on a particular two chord motif draws the keen listener toward the inner workings of these chords – as though a gradual documentary close-up was occurring – the very analysis of sound is thus tangibly at the heart of this music. Despite all this, the effect of Sonant on this reviewer went well beyond the purely abstract. The carefully chosen juxtapositions of sounds and silence, of attack and decay seem to fall perfectly on one's perceptions; the notes themselves seem to claw at one’s thoughts and feelings, Sonant’s ending is barren and resigned.

Hymnos begins with fanfare-like fff repetitions of chords and rhythms. Here the notes and intervals themselves seem to carry more of the musical weight, although the sudden outbursts do sometimes disorientate the listener. The material is certainly not particularly dissonant. In fact I detect something of an Eastern European flavour, albeit one melded to this rather Feldmanesque aesthetic. Hymnos displays an elegance all of its own. The bell-like chords that end of the work with their extraordinary echoing resonances are vividly caught by the engineers and spellbindingly projected by Ewa Guziolek-Tubelewicz.

Euphony comes from the final year of Sikorski’s life. A repeated, insistent three-bar phrase dominates the opening – this music is seemingly cut from the same cloth as Hymnos. These late pieces both seek to distil and refine the essence of Sikorski’s art. The repeated phrases in this work though are more complex and ambiguous. Euphony builds in volume with a repeated variant of the opening before a fermata at 4:04 enables the listener to focus on the decay of its last chord. Another variant is repeated insistently before more chiming fff chords provide a counterpoint to a nagging, repeated high note. At 5:50 an episode of what appears to be boogie-woogie emerges almost from nowhere, albeit one that’s dissonant and oddly fractured. Repeated pairs of chords and the boogie-woogie alternate until the chords broaden and extend towards some implied tonal resolution – the ‘Euphony’ of the title perhaps? The end of the work returns us to the world of the fff chords heard at the outset of Music of Twilight. The resonances are bent and simply left to die. We have come full circle. It is as if Sikorski is telling us “This is it – take it or leave it”.

While the solo piano pieces possess characteristics which invite repeated listening, the work that gives the album its title simply demands it, and confirms the view that Sikorski’s is most certainly a voice worthy of serious re-evaluation. The performance of Music in Twilight was captured at the 2006 Warsaw Autumn Festival and notwithstanding the odd muffled cough its sound is vivid, clear and, despite my descriptions of the music, oddly warm. The performance by Szábolcs Esztényi, evidently one of Sikorski’s most esteemed collaborators drips with concentration and utter conviction. The Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra under Zsolt Nagy provide appropriately rapt accompaniment. The solo piano works are presented in studio recordings from 2017. The instrument’s sound is thrillingly caught while the playing of Ewa Guziolek-Tubelewicz is superbly focused and assertive throughout all three pieces. Anyone interested in the margins of late twentieth century music should sample the music of Tomasz Sikorski. This album makes a splendid starting point. I strongly suspect that Music in Twilight will make a deep impression on many listeners.

Richard Hanlon


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