Szymański’s Eccentric Harpsichord Pieces


DISSOCIATIVE COUNTERPOINT DISORDER / SZYMAŃSKI: Dissociative Counterpoint Disorder. Through the Looking-Glass…III. Les Poiriers en Pologne ou une Suite de Pièces Sentimentales de Clavecin Faite Par Mr. Szymański. Partita III* / Małgorzata Sarbak, harpsichordist;*The Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra; *Zsolt Nagy, conductor / Dux 1332

Composer Paweł Szymańaski (b. 1954), of whom I had not previously heard, apparently enjoys starting his compositions in older classical music styles before tinkering with time, phrasing, and rhythm. In a conversation with musicologist Katarzyna Naliwajek-Mazurek, Szymański has said “I acquainted myself with the harpsichord very early, at 14 or 15, while attending music school. I was very close with Wladysław Klosiewicz, who had just started to learn harpsichord…I’ve been really interested to write for the harpsichord form time to time, first for the Limericks for violin and harpsichord.”

It should be noted for those who, like me, did not know about Szymański, that he has composed a great many pieces for chamber groups and full orchestras. Indeed, it seems that the last piece on this CD, Partita III, began its life as a concertante piece for a chamber group.

So what does this music sound like? Well, the best general description I can give is of a harpsichordist who begins playing a standard 18th-century piece but then begins to experience an ischemic attack and starts missing notes and beats. In the CD’s title piece, this extends to long pauses between notes or chords which disrupt the musical flow. This is what Dissociative Counterpoint refers to—a disruption of the coordination between the two hands so that the counterpoint one hears is not necessarily played in the exact same manner the ear expects. The music is a lot of fun and, I daresay, intriguing at the same time. Whether or not it is necessary music, music you will want to keep and re-hear several times, is entirely up to you.

Whatever your reaction to the music, however, there is no question but that harpsichordist Małgorzata Sarbak is fully into the spirit of this music and is having a ball playing it. Her spirited performances give the music life and lift, making the disc a joy to listen to even when one is having trouble trying to figure out just exactly what Szymański is trying to accomplish. In Through the Looking-Glass…III it seems to be cracked-mirror reflections of groups of notes, in which the right-hand figures sometimes complement and sometimes work against the left, which latches onto phrases and repeats them several times before letting them go. Moreover, my allusion above to Szymański’s music as zaniness with a purpose is not without its verification from others. According to the liner notes, Polish music critic Andrzej Chlopecki, who supported the composer via his longtime role with the Warsaw Autumn Festival, described his music as “a continual game,” comparing it to the music of Johannes Ockgehem and Anton Webern. Chlopecki said that Szymański’s “guiding principles would be speculation and constructivism.”

The suite Les Poiriers en Pologne etc. is the closest to 18th-century form and the least disruptive and wild. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that Les Poiriers en Pologne is an indication of just how fine a composer Szymański really is; without actually copying anything genuinely Baroque, he manages to make the piece sound authentically Baroque—far better than Paderewski even did with his famed Minuet in G. And here, Sarbak’s playing is equally elegant, letting the music flow and sing beneath her fingers. (For the curious, the pieces in the suite follow the standard Baroque formula of Introduction, Allemande, Courante, Gavotte, Sarabande and Rondeau before the introduction of a movement titled “Jacques ou Canaries,” following which is a Menuet and a Chaconne.) I should also point out that Sarbak’s harpsichord is recorded very, very well.

The rather long Partita III (15:11) which closes out this CD was, as mentioned earlier, a chamber work which Szymański rescored here for full orchestra with harpsichord obbligato. It makes a fitting bookend with the opening work due to its equally playful deconstruction of melody and rhythm, similarly stopping several times and then squeaking out one painful-sounding note here and there. Apparently, this is one of his calling-cards as a composer. Again, the album as a whole may not be to everyone’s tastes, but it does provide a fascinating glimpse into the mind of a composer not well known or appreciated in the West.

—© 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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