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Comfort Zone
rec. Warsaw, Poland 2019
DUX 1634 [67:12]

The title of this disc – which is taken from Wojciech Blecharz’s piece on track 5 – is certainly an ironic one, and very few people will find it a ‘comfortable’ listen, which I’m sure would worry neither the composers involved, nor the brilliantly talented vocal sextet ProMODERN who perform here. The group was founded in 2012, and work in that genre of what I call ‘Vocal Theatre’ that has emerged so strongly in recent years, with artists such as Meredith Monk, Roomful of Teeth, and many more.

Which implies, of course, that the visual aspects of their performances are as integral as the music to what they do. So I would strongly recommend having a look at them in performance; there are numerous videos on You Tube and elsewhere, including the longest work in this collection, Tabakiernik’s “apoptosis”.

The presence of the two greatest Polish composers of the past half century or so, Penderecki and Lutosławski, indicates that the group is strongly linked to the tradition of progressive music in their country represented by those two great composers. And this CD can be seen in a sense as a tribute to Penderecki, who died just a matter of weeks ago (even though he was of course still alive when this recording was made). His vocal works such as the St. Luke Passion were massively influential on composers such as Luciano Berio and Paul Patterson; so characteristic of its period was his Ecloga VIII (composed 1972), that I even felt a pang of nostalgia – a strange response to music as esoteric as this!

So not an ‘easy’ disc, anything but; yet once you get into it, an extraordinary experience. Six pieces of various lengths – four of them being recorded for the first time - are interleaved with five ‘Interludia’ by Rafał Ryterski, short pieces of Musique Concrète (collages of mechanical, electronic and natural sounds), cunningly devised to lead seamlessly into each succeeding track. Since most of the other works are slow and hypnotic in character, these interludes work well as an effective punctuation, briefly returning us to something more diurnal.

The final track is occupied by Piotr Tabakiernik’s “apoptosis”, the longest and in many ways the most impressive of these compositions. ‘Apoptosis’ is a Greek word that originally meant the Autumnal fall of the leaves, though it has been adopted by human biology to signify natural decay and the death of cells. The strongly evocative sound of footsteps on dry leaves acts as a kind of ‘Rondo theme’, and in between we have recitations from poetry from a wide range of sources; not only Shakespeare, but Dickenson, Cicero, Xenophon, Wang Wei, as well as verses from Georgian and Aztec literature.

Near the end comes the first moment of ‘real’ singing; the voices quietly introduce the ancient German song ‘Mein junges Leben hat ein End’ (‘My young life has an ending’), well-known as the basis of a great organ work by Sweelinck. This is very moving, and brought to mind the similarly hushed entry of the Bach chorale ‘Es ist genug’ near the end of the Berg Violin Concerto. That work is a Requiem for Manon Gropius, whom the composer loved; and Tabakiernik’s piece too serves as a kind of Requiem, bearing in mind the presence of Krzystof Penderecki’s music on the CD.

Before that, we have the most ‘conventional’ of the music here, Lutoslawski’s setting of an uncharacteristic but rather wonderful short poem by Tennyson. That is preceded by another intense and thought-provoking piece. Written by Aleksander Kościów, “Bennington Triangle” contemplates the fate of five people who disappeared mysteriously in Bennington, Vermont. Perhaps the first section of spooky undulating vocal tones is too protracted; but the later stages, with their simple recitation of the names and the basic facts of their owners’ disappearance, is effective, recalling something of the atmosphere of John Adams’ ‘On the Transmigration of Souls’.

On track 5 we find the ‘title piece’, Wojciech Blecharz’s “Comfort Zone”. Nocturnal, dream-like, though the only track to have a clear rhythmic, or at least temporal element. Working backwards, we then come to Jagoda Szmytka’s “sky-me, type-me” for four megaphone-amplified voices. An entertaining and sometimes funny piece, with occasional contributions from cattle and other animals, it reminded me of tape and voice pieces from the 1960s, by composers such as Berio and Mimaroğlu – and none the worse for that.

Which brings us back to the master himself, Krzystof Penderecki, whose Ecloga VIII of 1972 opens the CD. The text is from Vergil’s ‘Bucolica’, and tells the story of the mythical Amaryllis, and her attempts to lure back her lover Daphnis using a magical ritual. Penderecki, with a wide range of vocal effects, including breathing, yapping and howling, creates something both magical and mysterious.

A brief mention of the excellent recording, which, with its subtle changes of perspective, goes a long way towards counteracting the absence of the visual dimension. This is an opportunity to encounter not just some extraordinary music, but also the extraordinary talents of ProMODERN.

Gwyn Parry-Jones

Krzystof PENDERECKI (1933-2020)
Ecloga VIII [9:24]
Rafał RYTERSKI (b.1992)
Interludium#1 [1:23]
Jagoda SZMYTKA (b. 1982)
sky-me, type-me [6:25]
Interludium #2 [1:38]
Wojciech BLECHARZ (b.1981)
Comfort Zone
Interludium #3 [1:15]
Aleksander KOŚCIÓW (b.1974)
Bennington Triangle (from The Book of Teraa) [12:07]
Interludium #4 [1:01]
Witold LUTOSŁAWSKI (1913-1994)
Lord Tennyson Song [1:32]
Interludium #5 [2:10]
Piotr TABAKIERNIK (b.1986)
apoptosis [22:59]

Marta Czarkowska (soprano), Ewa Puchalska (mezzo soprano), Ewelina Rzezińska (mezzo soprano), Andrzej Marusiak (tenor), Krzysztof Chalimoniuk (baritone), Piotr Pieron (bass), Piotr Sałajczyk (electric piano)

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