, March 2011
Not many of us will have heard of Rafal Augustyn outside Poland, but his organisational energies have contributed to numerous festivals and he is active both as a music critic on national media and in occasional performances as a pianist. He studied composition with Ryszard Bukowski at Wroclaw University, and continued those studies in Katowice with Henryk Mikolaj Górecki.
The works in this programme represent a thirty year period of creative activity, and form a fascinating overview and insight into Rafal Augustyn’s music. Perhaps problems of categorisation have some connection with his profile abroad. The music is neither tonal or ‘new spiritual’, nor in its intellectual approach does it fit neatly in a line from other Polish greats such as Penderecki or Lutosławski. It is however of the highest quality and filled with expressive power, and it is to be hoped that this excellent CD will contribute much to his wider recognition.
The String Quartet No.1 was written while Augustyn was still a student, and does betray some influence in Lutosławski in the sliding strings of the first of the three movements. There is a great deal more at work than exploration of texture however, and layers of ideas and rhythmic motifs in a transparent interaction between the instruments results in an attractive musical intrigue. The second movement Canone is particularly fine, with a sense of open expressiveness and atmosphere which is very compelling. The third movement reminds me a little of Berio in places, with shifts in perspective between proximity and distance coupled with conspiratorial conversations. The spirit of Bartók can perhaps also be discerned, but more as a technical guide than as a source of material to be plundered.
The String Quartet No.2 is intriguingly marked as being ‘with flute ad libitum’. You’d think this would be a tricky element to leave out, but the flute is added as mysterious extra colour, hiding amongst the strings and providing effects which can at times sound like a pipe organ, elsewhere like a strange electronic sine-wave. Used sparingly, it acts like a blue thread at the heart of the piece—a highlight of metallic sheen amongst the wooden bows and soundboxes of the stringed instruments. The work is both an expressive statement and a kind of exploratory voyage over a single extended movement—hard to describe in words, but in which it is easy to become completely absorbed.
Agata Zubel is a name I’ve come across as a composer in her own right, and her contribution in Dedication is sublime. The vocal part uses a text by Apollinaire, and the booklet describes a rather alcohol-suffused anecdote out of which this compact “musica serio but a touch buffo” arose. Initially rich in pizzicato and lower sonorities, the slow, high lyrical lines of the voice see the notes of the strings climbing in an attempt to greet it like invisible ivy. Do ut des is a real miniature, dedicated to the quartet which performs it here, and creating another fascinating rummage amongst the strings, the title hiding a thematic meaning which flows like oil into any number of personal allusions and references.
The final piece on the disc, Grand jeté. Quartet No. 2½, is a masterpiece to which I could listen endlessly. It adds concrete recorded sounds and electronic noises to music which was originally for a documentary about a dancer, Wojciech Wiesiollowski. The music follows the dancer’s footsteps through Europe and Russia and very much creates the feeling of a musical and literal journey, sometimes creating surrealist allusions to classic concert and ballet music, adding speech, street noises, natural sounds and a whole raft of other pre-recorded material. The electronics are a servant to the music; usually subtly integrated and often related to and playing off the pre-recorded sounds.
Augustyn’s mature chamber music combines the narrative qualities and expressive refinement of someone like Janáček, bringing it into a world which is both personal and quasi-eclectic. By ‘quasi’ I mean an eclecticism is that born of intellectual hunger and an intelligent ear for musical imagination and the realities of expression, rather than one which goes on aural shopping sprees to find fresh material. Augustyn’s is an original voice, but one which stands in respectful proximity to giants—not so much on their shoulders, but in readiness to use their ashes to spark and ignite new directions. The music here is challenging, but in no way aversively so. The challenge is to keep abreast of the mind behind the music, an exercise which I found most stimulating. The performance of the Silesian Quartet on this superbly rich and transparent recording is a highlight in its own right. They deserve awards, and lots of them.