• Andrzej Kwieciński: Umbrae (Bôłt, 2016)



Andrzej Kwieciński: Umbrae
Bôłt BR 1037 (2016)
Royal String Quartet

Umbrae (2004)
mural (2008-10)
Luci nella notte V (2014)
Contregambilles (2014)


The Polish composer Andrzej Kwieciński (b.1984) came to international attention when his Canzon de’ baci for voice and orchestra (2012) won the top award in the ‘Young Composers’ category at the 2014 International Rostrum of Composers.   He comes from a fertile and exploratory generation of Polish composers born in the early 1980s, a time of confrontation between the trade union Solidarity and the communist authorities who imposed martial law in 1981. By the end of the decade, however, democracy prevailed and Poland proceeded to realign itself with the West. This change of direction was paralleled in Kwieciński’s generation, many of whom are untrammeled by the Polish past, both political and cultural, and are eager for stimuli from other quarters.

After studying composition, musicology and Baroque singing (countertenor) in Warsaw, Kwieciński moved in 2005 to The Hague, where among his compositional mentors were Louis Andriessen, Martijn Padding and Yannis Kyriakides. Subsequent contacts have included Luca Francesconi and Hanna Kulenty (the only Pole among these names, also based in Holland) and he has also cited Gérard Grisey, Helmut Lachenmann and Salvatore Sciarrino as influences.   But Kwieciński, despite being only in his early thirties, is distinctively his own man, occupying his own technical and expressive world.

This may be observed from experimental student pieces like Play with me, please… for five mobile phones (2002), through several works inspired by the American painter Jackson Pollock, such as no. 32, 1950 for violin and chamber orchestra (2007), to Canzon de’ baci. This last work initiated a new compositional phase, bringing together his vocal and technical interests. It took as its starting point the title of a late 16th-century poem by Guarini, already set to music by Marenzio, Gesualdo and Monteverdi, and also drew on a fragment from Cavalli’s opera La Calisto. Kwieciński’s purpose was not to play with stylistic conventions but, as he has said, ‘to ‘enact’ the Baroque rather than imitate it’. The four works on this CD, ranging in date from 2004 to 2014, form an integral part of his creative development and at the same time demonstrate his particular affinity with music for strings.

Umbrae for string quintet (2004)

Written before he left for Holland, Umbrae is Kwieciński’s first fully acknowledged composition and was premiered in 2004 at a student music festival in Warsaw. Its title draws on the idea of shadows, musical ideas that change the perspectives on a dimly perceived original. This ‘shadowing’ technique, credited by Kwieciński to Kulenty, involves rhythmic and microtonal shifts, interpreting the spectral in both a musical (Griseyan) and quasi-narrative way.

Umbrae sparks into life with an edgy sff sub pp, followed by a barely metrical texture that recalls, whether coincidentally or no, the sonoristic tendencies of the 1960s, such as Górecki’s Elementi for three string instruments. The accelerating accumulation of sff markings seems to hark back to another work of the same period, the opening of Lutosławski’s Trois poèmes d’Henri Michaux. The sound-world of postwar Polish music still resonates. At the climax of this short intensification, the music reaches its harmonic kernel where the double bass plays a low E-natural octave, above which the other instruments pulsate on eight of the long note’s harmonics (8-13, 15 and 16).

Kwieciński develops this central idea intuitively rather than schematically, entirely in keeping with the title’s suggestion of intangibility. What follows is an almost unbroken post-sonoristic stream, whose elusive heterophony is sometimes dense, often diaphanous. Umbrae presses forward with nervous anxiety, in long overlapping phases where some familiar motifs – the sff, variable vibrato, glissandi – have a developmental air. This is brought to a halt by low pizzicati (a timbre that has been saved for this moment) and a plangent microtonal violin line. After a brief reprise from the opening, Kwieciński’s first string quintet ends with a recall of the E-natural spectrum that has been its raison d’être.

mural for string quintet (2008-10)

Kwieciński’s second string quintet was premiered five years after the first, during the 2010 International Chamber Music Festival in The Hague. Despite technical affinities, they are very different works. Where Umbrae is sustained, mural is dislocated, ranging from the spare to the frantic. The influence of Grisey becomes explicit as mural unfolds, while the work’s extramusical hinterland includes both the distorted repetitions of Pollock’s large-scale painting of the same name (1943) and the multi-angled perspectives of William Faulkner’s novel The Sound and the Fury (1929).

Once again, Kwieciński is fascinated by spectralism (each tone is divisible by six), this time facilitated by the computer software OpenMusic. The expressive arcs of the music are not shaped by this, however; they stem rather from the composer’s instinct for timbral intimacy and gestural projection. mural is anchored in the opening G ¾ sharp. This initiates the three principal sections, the first of which is set in motion by a brief figure, squirming upwards, played furioso on first violin. Two related figures follow, at which point the second violin picks up the first violin’s material in distant canonic imitation. Cutting into this is an elastic subsidiary idea, spotlighting the viola.

The second G ¾ sharp passage reintroduces this new idea (now on the cello) before it in turn gives way again to the canon. The brevity of the third G ¾ sharp appearance propels the canonic interplay into new territory, aided by polymetric animation in the lower parts and intercut by a two-voiced ostinato in the violins that is taken (in modified form) from Grisey’s Vortex Temporum (1994-6). At the climactic point, Kwieciński inverts the figuration to enable the lower instruments to combine with the violins in a compelling drive towards the conclusion. This is signaled by the gradual insertion of sustained notes, the reprise of the ostinato, and a dynamic reiteration of the G ¾ sharp.

Luci nella notte V for four string quartets (2014)

Luci nella notte V is the latest in a series of pieces that began with Luci nella notte I for cello and orchestra (2003). It was premiered, as was Contregambilles, by the Royal String Quartet at its 2014 ‘Kwartesencja’ Festival in Warsaw. It may be performed live by four quartets or by a single quartet that has prerecorded the parts for the second, third and fourth quartet. Purely audio formats, of course, offer a recording that gives all four ensembles equal privilege.

Like numbers I-IV, Luci nella notte V centres on A natural, an Ariadne’s thread around which Kwieciński weaves new perspectives, senza vibrato. In this respect, the work follows in the footsteps of mural, although this time the focal pitch is ever-present, its timbres shifting restlessly. Kwieciński adds structural elements, such as a dry fingernail pizzicato harmonic played on the bridge of a violin, repeated chords of harmonics played by the whole ensemble or a sustained, more dissonant combination of harmonics. The repeated chords are especially icy, reminiscent of the ‘bitter cold’ in Purcell’s King Arthur or of Prokofiev’s battle scene in Alexander Nevsky. Such company is not out of place, as Luci nella notte not only shows the ascetic, introverted aspect of Kwieciński’s musical personality but also is one of a number of recent works that invoke the past, notably through reference to the music of the Baroque.

Against the fragile yet tenacious A natural, Kwieciński places a simple G minor chord here or a D minor oscillation there, but the most notable features are fragments – ghostly, transparent, fleeting – from two Gesualdo madrigals and a Buxtehude cantata. The composer favours diatonic figuration from Moro, lasso, al mio duolo and Tu m’uccidi, o crudele, with their texts of death from unrequited love, over their more notorious chordal sequences. The inclusion of the opening melody of Buxtehude’s funeral cantata Mit Fried und Freud ich fahr dahin (just after the fourth appearance of the repeated chords) seems particularly appropriate, given that Luci nella notte V is dedicated to the memory of Kwieciński’s father. It is a muted and haunting panorama of part-remembered musics that seem, in the words of Purcell’s librettist John Dryden, to ‘freeze again unto Death’.

Contregambilles for string quartet (2014)

It should not be thought that Kwieciński lacks humour. In its material distortions and intercut repetitions, Contregambilles certainly maintains clear links with earlier pieces, but its playfulness with Baroque material – also evident in the post-Stravinskian Concerto. Re maggiore for harpsichord and orchestra (2013, rev. 2014) – shows his quixotic, tongue-in-cheek side. Kwieciński describes the title as a jeu de mot on the prefix ‘contre-’ and gambilles (from the slang gambiller, ‘to dance’ or ‘to jig about’; gambilles is also slang for ‘legs’). His source this time is dance music from several operas by Rameau, such as the rigaudon, tambourin (from Dardanus) and, inevitably, contredanse (these sources are characteristically used as a rarely glimpsed, deep structural layer). Not for nothing does the quartet sport the subtitle, using Rameau’s own vocabulary, ‘Rondeau, gay et gracieux’.

In complete contrast to Luci nella notte V, Contregambilles explodes in a rapidfire sequence of short fixed motifs, later joined by others, that form a tumbling kaleidoscopic scherzo. It is a madcap, disjointed, skeletal world interrupted by what Kwieciński calls ‘entrée des furies’. Against screeching harmonics, the viola attempts a virtuosic cadenza before the kaleidoscope intervenes. At each alternation between these two ideas, the viola becomes more determined, but its third ‘cadenza’ ends in frustration with a molto vibrato swipe, across the strings, of a C major chord. The kaleidoscope continues headlong and heedless. On the fourth occasion, instead of the expected viola solo, the player picks up a tambourine (another jeu de mot: tambourin is French for tabor, a drum without jingles). The violist thwacks the tambourine vigorously, finally throwing it to the floor to halt this shadowy danse macabre.

© 2016 Adrian Thomas


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