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Toccata, for accordion and piano (2017) [5:57]
Meditation I, for piano, clarinet, trombone and cello (2016) [8:30]
Meditation III, for solo trombone (2016) [7:58]
Bagatelle, for clarinet and piano (2018) [4:17]
Elegy, for solo viola (2016) [6:54]
Amnesia, for trombone quartet (2016) [8:11]
Lullaby, for solo piano (2019) [8:56]
Baby’s Expressions, for solo saxophone (2018) [9:12]
Sonata, for viola and piano (2016) [12:26]
rec. July 2020, Nova Hall, Ignacy Jan Pederewski Academy of Music, Poznań, Poland
DUX 1684 [73:09]

During the last two or three years, two music-loving friends who live/work in Poland have, independently of one another, suggested that I should listen to the music of a young composer called Ewa Fabiańska-Jelińska. Hitherto I have had to make do with some performances of individual works (including ‘Rocking Music’, ‘Two Scandinavian Preludes’ and ‘The Tree of Life’) on YouTube, plus two tracks (‘Arabeska I’ and ‘Arabeska II) on the 2013 CD Polish & Norwegian Composers: New Chamber Works (Acte Préalable, APO294). I have found this music intriguing, innovative but eminently accessible. Her work seems to be that of a composer more often fascinated by the sonic possibilities of a variety of instruments than by traditional ideas of form. Yet she seems also to give her works their own sense of form, a kind of clearly shaped sonic and emotional narrative. Sometimes there are passages which sound almost like improvisations, but most of her work is, I gather, fully-scored.

This new CD has given me the opportunity to explore her work a little further and the favourable impression which I already had – as outlined above – has been strongly reinforced.

Here, under the general title of Chamber Music, we are presented with 9 pieces, all quite recent (the earliest is dated 2015, the latest 2019); seven of the these works consist of a single movement, the exceptions being ‘Baby’s Expressions’ and the ‘Sonata for Viola and Piano’, both of which are made up of four movements. A number of the works are for a solo instrument, e.g. ‘Meditation III’ (for solo trombone), ‘Elegy’ (for solo Viola) and ‘Baby’s Expressions’ (for solo saxophone); two works require four players – ‘Amnesia’ (for trombone quartet) and ‘Meditation I’ (for piano, clarinet, trombone and cello). This all makes for a CD which has a considerable variety of instrumental colours and textures.

Such variety is also related to the fact that Fabiańska-Jelińska frequently demands extended/unorthodox techniques from those who perform her music. To cite just two examples from the music on this disc: in ‘Toccata’ the accordionist is required to hit the bellows of his/her instrument and the pianist is instructed to strike the sustain pedal with the foot; in ‘Meditation I’ the pianist is told to tap the bell of the instrument and the cellist is instructed to strike the soundboard of his/her instrument. But these are not trivial or gimmicky effects: they are a purposeful enlargement of expressive possibilities and the sounds thus produced contribute to the poetic and emotional design of the music.

This is music which is full of humanity, with a strong underlying lyrical impulse. To take one example, ‘Elegy’ (a solo for viola, played here by Lech Bałaban) is a powerful statement which embraces both resonantly dignified remembrance and painful grief. It is built around the Phrygian scale and after a relatively still opening it becomes more complex rhythmically – as if agitated utterance begins to overcome prepared dignity of statement. In the middle passages of the piece cries of lamentation are hinted at, but are kept under control, so that the dominant sense is of stoically respectful grief. Bałaban’s gravity of tone is beautifully sustained and the short passages of pizzicato suggest not so much moments of lightness as temporary threats to ordered, continuous thought and speech.

Perhaps because I have a new granddaughter in my family, I found myself particularly attracted to the four movements (Smile – Cry – Gurgle – Lullaby) of ‘Baby’s Expressions’, played with both tact and rich expression by the alto saxophonist Magdalena Jakubska-Szymiec who deploys, at various points a strikingly pure beauty of tone, the effects of overblowing, wordless vocal interjections, the sound of the instrument’s keys, what sound like vocal sounds made through a detached mouthpiece and much else. The whole work embodies a small baby’s attempts to communicate vocally, to respond to its mother’s speech – and also the mother’s joy as she sees and hears those attempts at communication. The result is beautiful, intimate music which, for the most part, is joyously exhilarating (not least in ‘Smile’ and ‘Gurgle’). ‘Lullaby’, fittingly, is quieter; it opens with the sound of breathing, before we hear anything of the saxophone itself, building an attractively sinuous melody, full of quiet but insistent repetitions, before falling back into silence.

The ‘Lullaby’, for solo piano doesn’t so directly fulfil the implications of its title. Certainly it opens calmly, using simple repetitive patterns, but these patterns soon grow more complex and multi-layered, while obviously remaining closely related; they seem to speak of threat and danger more than comfort or sleep. In my early hearings of the piece I took this to be an allusion to the universal vulnerability of small children. But when I read the very useful booklet notes (the author of which is left unnamed) I found the information that this piece is “devoted to the memory of children harmed by adults”, making it clear that Ewa Fabiańska-Jelińska had a more specific reference in mind than I had first imagined. Either way, this is a well-made and moving piece.

I don’t propose to make specific reference to all 9 of the compositions presented on this CD, but would like to mention just one more. ‘Amnesia’, for trombone quartet is an especially interesting piece. The unsigned booklet notes are, once more, worth quoting: “The idée fixe […] of […] Amnesia […] is a process of remembering and forgetting, passing and transforming, inspired by the film Youth by Paolo Sorrentino”. I don’t know this film (my friends would say, quite rightly, that I know hardly any films!), but the phenomenon is, surely, universally familiar. The ensemble heard here (TrombQuartet) works frequently with Ewa Fabiańska-Jelińska, who often produces arrangements for the group, and they certainly sound very much at home in her music. ‘Amnesia’ uses the bass trombone of, I think, Tomasz Kaczor, as the solo instrument within a quasi-concerto form. The work is built around a relatively small number of motifs, in every case introduced by the soloist, which then reappear, often with rather different functions, in the other three trombones. So, for example, something used melodically by the soloist returns as the harmonic foundation for a passage played by the ‘chorus’ of trombones. Brief musical events disappear and are then recalled, transformed, in a different context. There is a sense in which Fabiańska-Jelińska’s music, here at least, mimics the fluidity of human memory with its unexpected lacunae and its sudden acts of recall, its changes of direction and idiom. It makes for a fascinating piece of music, by turns engaging and puzzling – frequently both at once!

Ewa Fabiańska-Jelińska is, then, a highly inventive composer, full of ideas; but the fertility of her musical imagination always serves ends beyond itself, as I have tried to show. Her music ‘thinks’ and ‘talks’ about human experience even if, as is the case with all worthwhile music, her work cannot successfully be ‘translated’ into simple verbal statements about such matters.
I have found my first extended encounter with Fabiańska-Jelińska’s music thoroughly stimulating and this richly rewarding disc certainly deserves to find many listeners. But in addition to the case which this disc makes for Ewa Fabiańska-Jelińska’s status as a composer it also provides a clear demonstration of something else. All of the performers (who are consistently impressive) are closely associated with the Ignacy Jan Pederewski Academy of Music (Akademii Muzycznej Im. Ignacego Jana Paderewskiego) in Poznań. It is clear that music-making at a very high level is going on in this institution!

Glyn Pursglove

Duo Wolánska/Gajda (Julia Wolánska-Gadja, piano; Michał Gadja, accordion)
Sepia Ensemble (Tomasz Sośniak, piano; Szymon Józwiak, clarinet; Wojchiech Jeliński, trombone; Anna Szmatoła, cello
Wojchiech Jeliński, trombone
Paweł Kroczek, clarinet; Hanna Lozinkiewicz, piano
Lech Bałaban, viola
TrombQuartet (Piotr Banyś, Wojciech Jeliński, Marek Kaczor and Tomasz Kaczor, trombones)
Maria Rutkowska, piano
Magdalena Jakubska-Szymiec, alto saxophone
Ewa Guzowska, viola; Maria Koszrwska-Wajdzik, piano

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