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Brian Reinhart
MusicWeb International, December 2011

The Polish answer to the Pavel Haas Quartet…OPiUM have assembled tuneful, enjoyable new music that rewards closer listening too. Anybody who thinks that “appealing/melodic” and “expertly crafted” are now mutually exclusive should hear Czarnecki’s tiny String Quartet No 2 (1997), which is both. © MusicWeb International

Rob Haskins
American Record Guide, September 2011

The OPiUM quartet is a group of young string players; all four graduated from the Chopin Academy—one in 2003, three in 2005. This debut recording collects four works composed between 1986 and 2007, all influenced to some degree by the so-called “return to melody” or “new romanticism” that commanded the attention of several Polish composers in the mid-1970s. (Gorecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs and Penderecki’s first violin concerto are probably the most familiar examples.)

The earliest work, Wojciech Kilar’s Orawa (1986), begins with minimalist patterns that articulate closely related harmonic changes, then gradually gain momentum to evoke a dance by a highlander band. (Shepherds in Orawa, a region on the Polish-Slovak border, perform such dances after their workday.) Maciej Malecki’s Polish Suite, written for OPiUM, borrows from four previous works and is unabashedly tuneful, even nostalgic. Slawomir Czarnecki’s second string quartet (1997)—the strongest work here—was written during an intense period of documenting folk music from the area of Spis; the music, while in a concert music idiom, retains vestiges of melody and even the playing style of the folk bands in the region. Malecki’s daughter Magdalena (the violist for the OPiUM quartet) shines as a soloist in the concluding Andante and Allegro, written by her father expressly for her graduation recital; the quartet is joined here by violist Wojciech Walczak and bassist Radoslaw Nur. While the composition occasionally indulges in more dissonance than the others, it is also thoroughly influenced by folk idioms. The performances are superb, and the engineering is spectacular.

Bob McQuiston
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.

Jonathan Woolf
MusicWeb International, December 2010

You’ll get no argument from me regarding the disc’s title. This young quartet is devoted to these works, and presents them with real intensity and, indeed, joy in this, its first disc. I daresay that those who have not followed the course of Polish music since the mid to late 1970s—when some composers began a ‘return to roots’ policy, and embraced highlands’ music and folkloric inspiration—will be unfamiliar with the three composers recorded in this disc. If that’s the case, then I think you’ll be in for a pleasant surprise.

Wojciech Kilar’s Orawa is the best known work here, but not in this form. It was originally written for string ensemble but has been arranged for quartet by Krzysztof Urbanski. It starts with a kind of ostinato minimalism, but soon lone voices emerge and there’s plenty of compelling folkloric inflexion thereafter. The swirling rhythms increase and the dynamics become more extreme. It’s very exciting, the ethos, crudely, I’d gauge as ‘Steve Reich meets the Lachian Dances’.

Maciej Malecki is the father of Opium’s viola player Magdalena Malecka and his Polish Suite was written for this group to premiere. It’s a lovely work. Filigree, tremolandi, filmic warmth and beautiful melodies—lissom, lilting and dancing—course through its veins. The final movement pays homage to the Krakowiak in the best possible way. His compact, two-movement String Quartet feasts on highlands’ folklore. The genesis is presumably Szymanowski but the sonorities are the kind you’ll hear in Tatra folk bands, though they’re rather less raw, obviously, in Malecki’s case. If you want a brief slice of primarius-led classical folklore, look no further.

Malecki has also written a kind of mini viola concerto for chamber forces; this includes quartet, viola and bass. If that suggests dark sonorities it’s not wholly borne out. The composition was to be performed as the BA exam piece of his daughter as soloist (as on the recording). She plays finely, and the Jewish ethos of the music is added to by a kind of neo-classical dancing finale by way of Grazyna Bacewicz. Exciting, and successful.

The piece written by Slawomir Czarnecki is the „Spiski” quartet (Spiski means pertaining to the Spisz Mountain region).

With a natural recording balance, and fine, enthusiastic notes, I’m looking forward to the next release from this imaginative young quartet.

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