The Strange Musical Mind of Piotr Szewczyk

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BLISS POINT / SZEWCZYK: Twisted Dances for Oboe, Violin, Cello & Piano. Conundrum for Violin & Viola. Piano Trio No. 1. Half-Diminished Scherzo for String Quartet. Images from a Journey.* Furioso for String Trio. Very Angry Birds for Violin & Piano. Nimbus for Two Violins. Bliss Point for Violin, Clarinet, Cello and Piano+ / Piotr Szewczyk, violinist/*conductor; Bold City Contemporary Ensemble; Trio Solis; +Nathan Aspinall, conductor / Navona NV6093

Don’t ask me how “food science” played a part in the creation of the music on this album, but the publicity blurb claims this is so. I’m not even sure if food science is real or bogus; its desscription on Wikipedia leaves me skeptical: “the discipline in which the engineering, biological, and physical sciences are used to study the nature of foods, the causes of deterioration, the principles underlying food processing, and the improvement of foods for the consuming public.” Which is a convoluted way of saying that food can be genetically modified, mixing different foods and seasonings is chemistry, it rots when it gets too old, and there is a time window for flavor. Not much.

But violinist-composer Piotr Szewczyk apparently used a “bliss point” in a culinary sense, embodying “the technique’s saturation of a flavor just before the point of diminished potency” and transferring these sensations over to music. Let’s see how he made out, shall we?

The first group, of Twisted Dances, includes a “Polytonal Polka,” “12 Tone-al Waltz,” “Jig With a Twist” and “Effin’ Tarantella.” These are played by Szewczyk on violin with members of the Bold City Contemporary Ensemble: Scott Erickson on oboe, Brian Magnus on cello and Galen Dean Peiskee, Jr. on piano. This is whimsical music, rhythmically regular but tonally skewed. Despite their whimsical nature and brief duration, these pieces are exceptionally well written, displaying a firm grasp of structure in addition to a great sense of humor. Szewczyk also has his own style of scoring, using the cello as “ground bass” while moving the three other instruments around, placing them differently above one another to produce different-sounding chords. More often than not, the oboe is used primarily for color, and this adds considrably to his music’s unusual flavor. “Effin’ Tarantella” is especially virtuosic in character, but also surprisingly complex for a “light” work written for an odd combination of instruments.

Conundrum for Violin & Viola is a much calmer piece but no less fascinating, beginning with a deceptively calm opening theme before moving into more aggressively rhythmic and harmonic territory. Harsh dissonance and aggressive downbow attacks make for some edgy, George Antheil-like listening. (I wonder if this was inspired by hot and spicy Cantonese or Mexican fare.) This duo morphs almost without a break into the first movement of the Piano Trio, which sounds like a strange, aggressive tango of sorts, though there are moments of relaxation sprinkled throughout. The hyper-tango feeling returns, albeit with an extra beat or half-beat thrown in for good measure just to disorient the toe-tapping listener. The second movement, in E-flat, has a decidedly blues-jazz feel to it, but in an asymmetrical rhythm that moves around as the piece morphs and develops. It then moves almost immediately into the finale, simply marked “Energetic,” which sort of picks up where the second leaves off but dismisses the bluesy bias. This one sounds like a fast-food lunch in a boiler factory, though relaxing a bit towards the end.

Half-Diminished Scherzo lives up to its name, and not just harmonically; the rhythm stutters and trips over its own feet as it tries to fool the listener into thinking they have a handle on it. The slow, eerie middle section sounds like a calliope with bent and out-of-tune pipes.

Images From a Journey for flute, clarinet, cello and piano consists of four movements that encompass a mere seven and a half minutes. You certainly can’t accuse Szewczyk of being over-garrulous! Ironically the second movement here, “Moonlight passacaglia,” is one of the loveliest things on the record, gentle and lyrical despite some off-rhythm figures sprinkled throughout. “Night’s Embrace,” barely more than a minute and a half long, is conversely a very dark, forbidding piece, emphasizing the sounds of the bass clarinet and alto flute. The finale, “Gypsy Ballroom,” sounds more like a cat dancing on the edge of a kitchen counter. Curiously, Furioso sounds more jolly and upbeat than furious, but it’s still a fascinating piece, full of strange contrasts of tempo and harmony. The bizarre slow section sounds as if the strings are tuning up.

Very Angry Birds is played by violin (Szewczyk) and piano (Ileana Fernandez). They are angry indeed; perhaps they ran out of Michele Obama’s tasteless school lunches to feed on. Or maybe they HAD to eat them. In either case, their food science is definitely out of whack. Nimbus is another intense duet, this time for two violins, with several varied tempo changes while the finale, Bliss Point, presents a quartet of violin, clarinet, cello and piano. Here, Szewczyk backs off from his typically edgy style to produce a first movement of curious but somewhat lyrical melodic-harmonic vein. The second movement is even more lyrical, in fact the most lyrical thing on this CD, even with a rhythmically busy middle section, while the third and last part is a crazy-quilt of rhythms and colors, rarely coalescing into a discernible or regular meter.

This is an absolutely splendid and fascinating album, highly recommended for all those who enjoy odd and highly creative contemporary music!

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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