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Witold JANIAK (b. 1974)
Nadzieja (Hope) [8:37]
Ziemia (Earth) [6:27]
Światło (Light) [9:08]
Człowiek (Human) [7:02]
Samotność (Loneliness) [9:20]
Obojęność (Indifference) [5:58]
Pojednanie (Reconciliation) [9:24]
Witold Janiak (piano); Dominika Sznajder and Paulina Kołodziejczyk (violins); Monika Swiniarska (viola); Jakub Łemański, (cello)
rec. 2018 Łódź, Poland
DUX RECORDS 1568 [56:18]

It’s not essential for a CD to come with a separate booklet with some relevant information about its contents and performers. But when there is scarcely little more on the card CD case than one paragraph by way of explanation, in Polish, followed by an English translation, it doesn’t make it appear overly user-friendly.

According to what additional information there is available online, Polish composer Witold Janiak is passionate about the piano, loves to compose, teaches by choice – as well as assuming the additional roles of conductor, manager, driver, technician, and more, as the situation demands. Initially a graduate of the Music Academy of Katowice, and now a professor of jazz in Łódź, he has won numerous awards in contemporary music, chamber music, and as a jazz pianist.

The single paragraph mentioned above seeks to explain the CD’s title, for those of us unfamiliar with Platonic philosophy. According to Janiak, Noesis (literally ‘understanding’, ‘intellect’) is a Greek word referring to perception of the mind, for which Music, as ‘one of the most sublime human activities creates a network of connections between the real and inner world’.

The first track, Nadzieja, opens with some agitated unison string-work, with the piano soon entering with its own contribution, adding to the initial strong rhythmic drive of the music, which continues for some two-and-a-half minutes, before Janiak embarks on his improvised piano journey, still supported by the persistent strings beneath. This leads to a further solo improvised piano section where the playing becomes more exploratory and questioning, almost to the point where there seems an almost deliberate desire to wrong-foot the listener, in terms of harmonic direction. But after almost seven minutes’ playing, strings resume, which helps both parties pick up on a common thread once more, based on the earlier unrelenting rhythm, which then leads to an abrupt, but effective close.

Ziemia initially evokes the kind of writing familiar from works like Karl Jenkins’s Palladio, for string orchestra (1995). Now the improvised piano line sometimes sounds intentionally at odds with the string harmonies, with significant use of bitonality – playing in two different keys simultaneously. Formal symmetry prevails, though, and the piece eventually ends as it began.

In Światło, the listener is presented with a somewhat nonchalant melody of modal or folk-like quality, delivered at a relaxed, easy-going tempo. There seems a greater sense of direction in the piano improvisation here, which tends to accord better with the prevailing string harmonies, than sometimes before.

By contrast, Człowiek returns to the sound-world of the opening track, fast and aggressive to start with, followed by another extended improvisation couched in a more loosely-atonal setting, which could, no doubt, become an acquired taste in time. It’s all rhythmically exciting stuff, however, and again goes for the sudden ending.

Samotność opens with a basically-chordal passage from the piano, again with some harmonic conflict between the hands, most of which, however, passes by largely unnoticed. When the strings enter, the movement evolves into a most poignantly-expressive piece of writing, the like of which has not been encountered previously. The improvised section here is also more concerned with melodic embellishment, as more befits the musical content. Passions intensify, and then abate, as the movement begins to reach back towards the calm of the opening, a format that has already worked well for Janiak and nowhere more so than on this especially-pleasing track, for my part the CD’s overall highlight.

The next track, Obojęność, returns to the energetic style of the earlier tracks, opening with arpeggio figures from the piano over a pedal-point – where string harmonies change, but the bass note remains static, or repeated. The strings are also given quite a bit more to do here, with greater opportunities to be heard individually, while negotiating some tricky and rapid figuration, something they do with real panache. Eventually this leads into a 6/8, two-in-a-bar lilting melody, which somewhat bizarrely brings to mind the main theme from the film, ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ at times. There is a great deal of running passage-work in the piano, from one end of the keyboard to the other, and the movement ends in an effective and heightened sense of drama.

Finally, Pojednanie begins on solo viola, with a slow, plaintive melody which suggests clear folk-tune origins, something which is underlined when the cello enters soon after, and the harmony becomes modal, with a number of bare, open fifths. The piano reinforces the final cadence, before a complete change of scene occurs at 1’35”, when we’re back in the energetic cross-rhythms heard during some previous tracks, and where the tempo increases considerably. This leads to a rapid fugal exposition from the strings, with the piano maintaining a short ostinato pattern on a single repeated E flat, leading into a flowing section with a really appealing contemporary ambiance to it, and which seems, in fact, to liberate Janiak, and elicit probably his best, and least inhibited playing on the whole CD. Now, some of the licks and phrases have a far more syncopated, jazz-like feel, which gives them greater shape and substance, something which some of the erstwhile more meandering improvisations could be thought to lack. A section where the piano intones slow octaves against the ever-more-excitable strings sees Janiak really cranking things up, before throttling back again to take a brief glance at what has gone before, culminating in a reprise of the calm string opening, coming to a full close this time. Now it’s the turn of the piano to intone the melody in single notes, with the viola. The string writing becomes lusher and more chordal, as everything powers down, leaving the listener to wonder whether, at the eleventh hour, there’s going to be another quick final flourish, or will calmness prevail through to the end. For risk of spoiling any surprise, all is revealed at around 9’08”.

Janiak’s, new CD, is certainly aimed at a niche market – but one where there are already at least two other contenders for pole position. Back in 2014 I reviewed a CD of Piano Trios by Nicolai Kapustin (b.1937) and, while some of the music started to become repetitive, even to the point where occasional figures used seemed to have popped up in other works by this Russian jazz-pianist and composer, the writing undoubtedly had a slick and intuitive feel, and was all very nicely done.

Another composer right up there at the top is Swiss saxophonist and composer, Daniel Schnyder (b.1961), and you need only listen to his Flute Sonata (1998/99), for example, to appreciate his consummate mastery of the style, all of which makes it appear somewhat less commercial than Kapustin’s.

So where does this new CD from Janiak fit in? There are things I prefer about Kapustin, although the somewhat more catholic mix of styles which Janiak offers, is refreshing, especially the folk-music influence, something which, as a different source confirms, is ‘important to the composer, who says that he likes Polish folk music very much, and has got it under his skin’. Yes, I feel Kapustin’s style comes across as essentially more ‘jazzy’ than Janiak’s – hardly a technical term, I know – but I still think, on the evidence given, that Noesis ultimately appeals to me a tad more, mainly because what it might lack in pure jazz content, it makes up for with its greater musical inventiveness and broader stylistic spectrum.

But while Janiak might score an extra brownie point or two over Kapustin, he doesn’t quite reach the dizzy heights and unparalleled expertise of Schnyder, especially when you consider that a work like Schnyder’s Flute Sonata was written some twenty years before Noesis appeared.

Janiak’s music is certainly engaging and rarely tires on the ear, but it’s not really saying anything fundamentally new. Still, I enjoyed listening to it, and the performance both from Janiak and his supporting string players is first-class. The recording is excellent, and, if nothing else, it’s an interesting experiment, and well worth giving a listen to. And who knows, it might even start to grow on you, as it did me.

Philip R Buttall

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