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Agata ZUBEL (b. 1978) Cleopatra’s Songs, for voice and instrumental ensemble to texts from Antony and Cleopatra by William Shakespeare (2017) [28:11] Double Battery, for instrumental ensemble and augmented sound space (2016) [23:05] Violin Concerto (2014) [16:05]
Agata Zubel (soprano); Katarzyna Duda (violin)
Klangforum Wien/Johannes Kalitzke (Cleopatra’s Songs)
Ensemble intercontemporain/Guillaume Bourgogne (Double Battery)
OMNO Ensemble, Orkiestra Muzyki Nowej/Szymon Bywalec (Violin Concerto)
Rec. November 2018 at Wien Modern, Konzerthaus Wien, Austria (Cleopatra’s Songs); May 2016 at the Music Electronica Nova Festival, National Forum of Music, Wrocław, Poland (Double Battery); December 2014 at the New Music Festival, Katowice, Poland (Violin Concerto)
Texts for Cleopatra’s Songs not included KAIROS 0015068KAI [67:25]
Give me some music. And then some. Here’s a disc to help one shake off the general pandemic torpor. With greetings from the ‘new Cathy Berberian’. Scurrying, buzzing string textures wind around the rapid breathings of this singer. The listener is at once spellbound by the force of her diction and delivery, She is Agata Zubel, composer, soprano, percussionist, actor and force of nature. Born and bred in Wrocław, she studied percussion and music theory at the city’s Karol Szymanowski High School before pursuing composition at the local Karol Lipiński Academy. These days she is as renowned for her singing as for her composition and judging from her discography she is equally at home performing the songs of Ravel and Obradors as she is delivering her own more challenging material. As a composer in her early forties Zubel has already accumulated a mightily impressive catalogue which includes three explosive symphonies, concertos, operas and most notably pieces to which one might attach that over-used, all-encompassing label ‘music-theatre’. Her previous Kairos portrait disc (0013362KAI) included the work for which she is arguably best known, the (quite literally) breathtaking Beckett ‘setting’ Not I (on 0013362KAI). It thrillingly epitomises the major components of her strange, polymath genius – a tightly knit, logical and fierce span of music and a searing gymnastic vocal performance, the two elements bound together by her naturally intuitive dramatic sensibility and a compelling imaginative vision.
This more recent Shakespeare sequence inhabits similar territory yet its vocal line at times approaches a cabaret style. The slivers of text that emerge reveal a Cleopatra who is obsessive, assertive, bullying, paranoid, alluring and frightened. Zubel whispers, vamps, affirms, croons, cries, sighs and even sings. The ever-brilliant Klangforum Wien somehow keep up with her declamations in the midst of a remarkably complex yet attractive score. The strangely opaque harmonies that emerge throughout seem to be largely due to the harp, which is tuned down a quarter-tone - a device designed to infect the ensemble with a halo of sonic distortion which deftly parallels the psychological extremes of the text and Zubel’s extraordinary characterisation. Lyrical episodes (there are many) seem to touch the world of art pop (Björk is referenced in the note). She concludes the first song with a smoky voice which abruptly turns histrionic and operatic (around the 6:30 mark). From 7:13 a swirling tempest of strings, winds and tuned percussion heralds an intense and gymnastic passage in which it proves difficult for the listener to disentangle the text without reference to the printed version. Musically Zubel adopts a truly dizzying variety of moods, states, colours and textures. Quieter moments are genuinely haunting. The instrumental accompaniment is equally transfixing. The labyrinth of pluckings and knockings from 14:20 cedes to Cleopatra’s desperate monologue from 15:11. Negotiating a tightrope between vulnerability and steeliness, Zubel projects unequivocal allure. The sequence from 22:10, all buzzsaw scrapings and unearthly cackling, is uplifting, liberating, debauched and cathartic. The closing pages of Cleopatra’s Songs play out like an Indian raga. The cycle comprises six numbers and whilst I think I can work out where each one ends and the next begins, help from Kairos by way of individual tracking and inclusion of the texts would have been appreciated.
Listeners may well be wrong-footed by the innocent title Violin Concerto since Zubel’s contribution to the genre is every bit as theatrical as the song cycle. The folky dialect violinist Katarzyna Duda projects at its outset is subverted by brief chordal interruptions of eye-watering tartness. Much of the solo material involves the violin’s highest register, including plentiful harmonics. The accompanying band (it comprises just sixteen players) intervenes with increasing frequency, most notably in the funky jabbings of the bass-clarinet. Duda extracts every microgram of expressive potential from the solo part. From 3:46 the music is elusive and hallucinatory, a feeling reinforced by atmospheric bell sounds. Harmonics invade the texture from 6:30. Jagged percussion outbursts duel with low brass. Ghostly harp notes creep around in the background. An episode from 9:57 features mellower woodwind gestures; these pre-empt music of crystalline detail which approaches inaudibilty. At this point Zubel’s idiom seems closer to Lutosławski than anything else on the disc – a spirit which is maintained throughout the remainder of the work. The concerto’s latter stages seem closer to more conventional concertante practise although intermittent passages of elemental loudness still shock the system. Whilst I was engaged (and convinced) throughout by Zubel’s Violin Concerto it’s certainly not for the faint-hearted. I found its last five minutes unsettling as well as exhilirating. Katarzyna Duda’s performance of the challenging solo part exudes commitment and style, whilst conductor Szymon Bywalec ensures the excellent OMNO ensemble cut no corners. The live recording is extremely vivid and leaves little to the imagination.
I found the middle work on this disc, Double Battery, a much tougher nut to crack. The conceit of the piece involves twin duels, between a pair of bass clarinets placed behind the audience, and between the two percussionists. The ‘augmented sound space’ referenced in the work’s instrumentarium alludes in the main to Zubel’s application of reverb and amplification, although one cannot help but wonder if this was a more effective device live in the hall than it seems on disc. I imagine that such an energetic piece would have been a compelling visual experience for the audience. That energy seems unrelenting at times during the first half - it’s more implicit and repressed thereafter. The shrillness that punctuates Double Battery is occasionally tempered by subterranean rumblings and havens of near silence which offer sanctuary from the general brutality on display. Textures and gestures regularly approach the spirit of free jazz. Microtonality is much more explicit in this work than in the couplings; notwithstanding episodes of repose (that from 16:16, for example) I found the piece as a whole somewhat diffuse and too fragmentary for my addled post-Covid brain to unravel, though Zubel’s sound world undoubtedly exerts a mawkish fascination. The Ensemble Intercontemporain enter into its unkempt spirit with unselfconscious abandon.
Like another polymath composer Thomas Adès, Agata Zubel seems to have talent to burn. It’s inevitable that music of such in-your-face impact will not always work for every listener every time, but my overall impression is that one wouldn’t want to miss out on what she has to say; the Violin Concerto and especially the Shakespeare sequence suggest she will enjoy far more hits than misses. In any case Zubel seems utterly determined to pursue her own path. I very much look forward to hearing much more from this confident, assertive, individual voice.