The Lutosławski Quartet’s Strange New Music

ACD233-LQ2016-DIGIPACK-FRONT

MARKOWICZ: String Quartet No. 4. KWIECIŃSKI: [P/PE(s)] MYKIETYN: String Quartet No. 3 / Lutosławski Quartet 2016 / CD Accord ACD233

The Lutosławski Quartet is a group of four bright young Polish musicians who play modern Polish music. Happily, Poland seems to have gotten over its infatuation with Krzysztof Penderecki, who I always considered a blight on the map of classical music, and moved on to composers who really know how to write music.

The problem I always had with Penderecki was that his music was ungodly ugly and purposely so. His goal was not to write music that was meaningful, even to him, but merely to shock and disgust people. He succeeded eminently. And now he is out of the picture.

Of course, this is not to say that none of these pieces surprise us. On the contrary, Marcin Markowicz’s String Quartet No. 4, written in 1979 when Penderecki-mania was still rampant in Poland, begins with stark, percussive sounds played by the four strings; but it doesn’t stay there. On the contrary, the music morphs and develops throughout its five separate but interlocking movements, shifting and changing in both tempo and meter yet always returning to that choppy opening motif as a form of musical glue that cements the work together. Occasionally, the four musicians tap and hit their instruments with their bows and their open palms, creating an even greater feeling of percussion. By and large, this quartet is more of a “mood” piece than a complex construction, and in this respect I found it very interesting that the Lutosławski Quartet plays it completely through with straight tone. THIS is the kind of music that cries out for that sort of treatment, not the quartets of Mozart, Haydn or Beethoven, and it was fascinating to hear how this gifted group of musicians used it in an artistic way.

Andrzej Kwieciński describes his music in the liner notes as being analogous “to playing a computer game of skill, e.g. Super Mario Bros, which was hugely popular in the 1980s. The protagonist, Super Mario, goes through difficulty levels – he must jump, run, and overcome hurdles. The person playing the game has an almost palpable experience of all the protagonist’s movements. Playing such a game, you must think fast and respond quickly. Exactly the same happens in my music where musical gestures change very dynamically, where you need to focus, be agile and responsive.” My take on it is that the music does indeed sound like an aural profile of a video game, jumping around with little shards of music bouncing off one another while the upper strings play whimsical, whining upward portamenti as commentary. The question is, however, whether or not [P/PE(s)] is really music—even as compared to, say, Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen’s absurdist little musical comedies—or merely aural effect meant solely to amuse. At times I liked it, but I felt that it went on for far too long and didn’t say anything that I personally responded to. Bottom line: it just went nowhere.

By contrast, Paweł Mykietyn’s Quartet No. 3 seemed to me minimalist yet focused. Mykietyn uses acceleration/deceleration and shifting stress beats within an essentially repeated pattern of notes as a means of negotiating his way through the musical landscape. Thus his own description of his music as “time and acceleration” is apt and needs no further interpretation. Surprisingly, a pleasant viola melody enter the picture at roughly the four-minute mark and provides the listener with some grounding around which the little squeaks and bleeps of the instruments add context. This melody, too, undergoes acceleration and time-condensing as the quartet proceeds. Again, it’s music in the abstract, meant to provide a temporary cushion against reality, not to inform or enlighten the listener.

By and large, I found this an interesting listen but not the kind of music I would want to hear over again. Does that sound odd to you? Well, that’s what happens when the music you write is designed to be odd but not more than that. Recommended with reservations.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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