Classical Lost and Found
, July 2011
Entitled “Back to Melody,” this outstanding debut release of the OPiUM String Quartet will introduce audiences to a relatively new performing group from Poland, whose technical abilities and choice of original program material bring to mind the legendary Kronos Quartet. A concept album at heart, it features contemporary Polish chamber music inspired by folk traditions. Three of the four selections are world premiere recordings, and so indicated by “WP” after their titles.
Those of us who are Eastern European folk music fans have always loved Karol Szymanowski’s (1882–1937) ballet Harnasie (1923–31…which is full of folk ditties from the Tatra Mountain region of Southern-Poland/Northern-Slovakia. And Slawomir Czarnecki’s (b. 1949) two-movement, second string quartet (1997, WP) [tracks-6 and 7], which is subtitled “Spiski” (a.k.a. “Spisz”) after an area there, seems cut from the same piece of cloth.
The lovely opening lento conjures up images of peasant women singing to one another across mountain valleys. The final allegro is a frenetic dance like those one imagines Janosik, who was a Slavic Robin Hood, and his band of Merry Men might have done.
Wojciech Kilar (b. 1932) is familiar to most through his many film scores, but he also writes distinguished concert music, his Orawa for string orchestra of 1986 being one of his most popular pieces. Presented here in an arrangement for string quartet [track-1} by up-and-coming conductor Krzysztof Urbanski (b. 1982), it’s undoubtedly much closer to what you’d hear from a Tatra village folk band.
Named after the Orawa (a.k.a. “Orava”) area of southern Poland just east of Spisz (see above), one again envisions Janosik and his bandits cavorting about. It even ends with that whistle/shout Tatra folk musicians give out.
Composer Maciej Malecki (b. 1940) is represented by his Polish Suite for string quartet (2007, WP), as well as Andante and Allegro for viola and string quartet with double bass (2005, WP). Although folk elements are present in both, they’re more subtly incorporated into these pieces than the ones above.
In four parts, the suite [tracks-2, 3, 4 and 5] opens with a “capriccio” that begins mysteriously. A lovely extended Magyar-like melody soon blossoms forth, and is periodically interrupted by episodes of energetic folk fiddling. A scurrying “scherzo” with bows to Mendelssohn (1809–1847) follows immediately with arresting, meowing glissandi [track-3, beginning at 01:03]. It ends as the cat crawls back into the bag.
The “melodia” section is a captivating melancholy lullaby that couldn’t be more different from the “krakowiak” finale. The latter is characterized by scurrying rhythms and some chromatic chicanery, but every now and then a comely Slavic-sounding romantic melody breaks out [track-5, beginning at 01:31].
Described by the composer as a mini-concerto for viola, Andante and Allegro [tracks-8 and 9] was written for his daughter Magdalena Malecka, who’s the OPiUM quartet’s violist. Inspired by Jewish folk music, dark passages for the soloist dominate the opening and closing of the moving “andante,” filling it with a sense of Semitic doom. They surround an animated hora-like dance section with klezmer overtones (see the newsletter of 16 August 2010).
You’ll find it one-eighty-out from the “allegro,” where angular motifs and jagged rhythms impart a neoclassicism similar to that in Polish composer Graznya Bacewicz’s (1909–1969) music…It’s a tailor-made showpiece for violist Malecka to display her overwhelming command of an instrument, which is frequently the string family’s problem child in lesser hands.
The OPiUM quartet was founded in 2004 by four young musicians who’d just graduated from the Frideric Chopin University of Music in Warsaw. It’s name is an acronym for “Opus i Universum” (“Work and Universality”), which is meant to emphasize the ensemble’s main goal of going their own way as far as programming and performance issues are concerned. And that’s exactly what they’ve done here with this rare repertoire rooted in the Polish folk tradition.
Incidentally the quartet’s moniker is apparently also meant to have some association with opium, but as explained in the otherwise excellent album notes, it all sounds pretty sophomoric. Be that as it may, this music is obviously in their blood, and the youthful enthusiasm and technical mastery with which they play it make for enjoyable listening. It leaves one wondering what they’ll come up with next.
These recordings were made on three different occasions in the Warsaw Philharmonic Concert Hall (apparently sans audience), and are consistently excellent. The soundstage projected is appropriately wide and quite deep, but optimum ensemble placement and miking preclude any loss of clarity due to the considerable reverberation in such a large venue. Rich string tone bordering on the bright makes this release a standout for contemporary chamber music enthusiasts as well as audiophiles.