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Andrzej DOBROWOLSKI (1921-1990)
Music for String Orchestra and Four Groups of Wind Instruments (1964) [6.42]
Music for Strings, Two Groups of Wind Instruments and Two Loudspeakers (1967) [6:21]
Amar: Music for Orchestra No. 2 (1970) [7:50]
Music for Orchestra No. 3 (1972-73) [8:34]
A-LA: Music for Orchestra No. 4 (1974) [9:56]
Music for Orchestra No. 6 (1981-82) [9:29]
Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra/Wojciech Michniewski, Zdzisław Szostak, Stanisław Wisłocki
Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra/Monika Wolińska
Krakow Polish Radio and Television Orchestra/Jacek Kaspszyk
rec. 1972-2011, unspecified locations
DUX 1554 [48:52]

Although the catalogue number belongs unambiguously to Dux, this compilation of music by a somewhat forgotten Polish twentieth century figure seems to be another collaboration with the contemporary music imprint Błt Records, whose logo appears at the base of the spine. I’ve come across Dobrowolski’s name in several catalogues of Polish music and in various textbooks, but this is the first time I’ve ever heard his work. His birthdate lies between those of Lutosławski and Penderecki, and the six pieces here are arranged chronologically, thus enabling one to better appreciate his development. Each of them lasts between six and ten minutes.

These brief orchestral essays are typical of the experimental music that emerged from Poland between the 1960s and the early 1980s. Both the Music for String Orchestra and Four Groups of Wind Instruments of 1964 and the work that follows, Music for Strings, Two Groups of Wind Instruments and Two Loudspeakers (1967) make use of spatial elements that the musicologist Jan Topolski links both to Giovanni Gabrieli’s late 16th century antiphonal and polychoral experiments and to Stockhausen’s seminal 1958 work for three orchestral groups, Gruppen. There isn’t a Surround layer on this disc but Dobrowolski’s sonic games do seem to emerge cleanly and convincingly in these stereo recordings, made in 2001 and 2011 respectively. While there are spectacular effects in both pieces, as well as the piercing dissonances which were de rigeur in much of the Polish music of the time, to these weary ears Dobrowolski does little more than conform to the peculiar demands of the zeitgeist in which he found himself. I can only leave it to fellow listeners’ judgements to determine whether such devices fulfil any serious purpose.

The Music for Orchestra series of pieces occupied Dobrowolski over the next decade or so. There are four examples here. No. 2, Amar from 1970 was dedicated to the conductor who directed its premiere, Andrzej Markowski (hence its acronym-derived subtitle Amar). Two tentative brass chords follow a span of densely harmonised material for strings in a passage which conceals tantalising hints of melody, before harsh splinters of shrieking brass and woodwind bring the piece to life. Notwithstanding Topolski’s remarks to the contrary in the booklet, this is music which seems far more concerned with texture and timbre than expressivity. Some of Dobrowolski’s sonic blends are unquestionably arresting, but any hints of melody or line are snuffed out before they begin. Given that Amar was recorded in 1972, the sound is astonishingly vivid.

No.3 was completed in 1973 (and recorded a year later). It opens with the agitated, loud screeching of wind which precedes an episode rich in the intricately woven string textures that dominated its predecessor. More seemingly aleatoric content follows before a delicate, gamelan-like backcloth envelops whooping winds and whistling sounds. These fleeting, glittering episodes alternate with seemingly random, bombastic material. They suggest that while Dobrowolski was certainly capable of producing more appealing and unusual music, he was apparently more concerned with yielding to the perceived aesthetic demands of radical Polish composition. In this way, Music for Orchestra No 3 is also brittle and gestural; while it perhaps reveals Dobrowolski’s facility to quickly get inside the new techniques it arguably lays bare his limitations in doing anything particularly purposeful with them.

The most extended examples of his art on this album are numbers 4 and 6 from the Music for Orchestra series. Both pieces last just under ten minutes. No 4 starts with long string unisons and octaves which broaden out into wedge-like shapes and again prioritise timbre and texture; after this ‘block’ there are duelling, ominous brass gestures - playful rather than aggressive - and then a warmer, more benign string background. Brass and wind chords rise and fall and merge over this. It becomes increasingly apparent that Dobrowolski is overly reliant on these ‘blocks’ of related, sonic material; episodes which do their stuff and disappear, although they may superficially resemble each other in terms of agitation or delay. If I come across as sounding rather negative about Dobrowolski, it’s something of a paradox that I did feel rather nostalgic about encountering again a very specific type of music that enthralled me as a teenager. Forty years on though, it sounds predictably unpredictable. I do though retain an affection for Dobrowolski’s now familiar gestures and textures; if nothing else they provide an important reminder of a time when experimental music in Eastern Europe was shunned and discouraged – and Poland at least resembled an oasis of daring and risk. In the event I really like the way that Music for Orchestra No 4 seems to wear itself out; it ends on a note of benign resignation with a warm pizzicato.

Seven years passed before Music for Orchestra No 6 emerged, and by 1982 something seemed to have changed in the composer’s outlook. Dobrowolski here works the material out more rigorously; he finally “takes it for a walk” and it ends up somewhere. Episodes merge into each other and seem interdependent rather than discrete. There is an abundance of colourful percussion in No 6 which contributes to a more inviting sonic landscape. This last item is unquestionably the most arresting piece on this album, both in terms of its structure and the musicality and variety of the ideas themselves. It seems to have a narrative at its core; it coheres organically and seemingly seeks some kind of expressive goal. If the blocks of sound that constitute the other five works on the disc satisfy (and shock) fleetingly, Music for Orchestra No 6 is more substantial and consequently endures longer in the listener’s mind.

The recordings span four decades but this is barely an issue; all six works are vividly recorded and the playing of the three orchestras involved seems full of conviction. A word about the booklet. The last Dux disc I reviewed had no translation of the Polish notes in any language. Investors are treated to an English version here, and from what I could unravel Jan Topolski seems to have contributed an objective, historically informed, and useful overview of Dobrowolski’s music. However, white script on a very pale lime green background is virtually unreadable without a powerful magnifying glass, and even then it’s a struggle. Having found a knowledgeable person to write informed notes, it seems unfair both to him and his audience to blur the message so wantonly. I am astonished that such a thoughtless presentation was signed off by the Dux creative team.

To conclude on a more positive note, I have found this disc most welcome in terms of finally being able to hear the work of a composer who’s been more written about than played. It also provides a timely reminder that many composers of Andrzej Dobrowolski’s era were taking huge risks given the volatility of cultural life in Eastern Europe at the time. As for Dobrowolski himself I admit to being ultimately a little underwhelmed. Perhaps one needs to hear more than the 49 minutes of orchestral music on offer here, but I would respectfully suggest that much of this music has aged rather swiftly. The experience has reinforced my long-held prejudice that one towering genius emerged from Poland in this period, and his name was Witold Lutoslawski.

Richard Hanlon

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