The Atom String Quartet Plays New Works

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WP 2019 - 2SUPERNOVA / LENCZOWSKI: Supernova. Fale [Waves]. LUBOWICZ: Toccata. Zawczešnie [Too Early]. KULENTY-MAJOOR: Concerto Rosso for String Quartet & String Orchhestra. ZABORSKI: Melody of the Prairie. SMOCZYŃSKI: Cosmos. Happy / Atom String Quartet (Dawid Lubowicz, vln; Mateusz Smoczyński, vln/bar-vln; Michał Zaborski, vla; Krzysztof Lenczowski, cel); NFM Leopoldinum Orchestra; Christian Danowicz, cond/vln / CD Accord ACD244 (live: Witold Lutosławski National Forum of Music, Wrocław, Poland, December 1 & 3, 2017)

Having greatly admired the work of the Polish jazz group, the Atom String Quartet, there was no way I was going to pass up an opportunity to review this disc. Like many modern jazz groups comprised of rather young players (Michal Zaborski, its oldest member, was born in 1978), they occasionally lean in the direction of rock or fusion rhythm, as in the case of the opener, Krzysztof Lenczowski’s Supernova, but thanks to the fact that they do not use a drummer the effect is not as deleterious on the musical quality as if often the case.

Moreover, Supernova is a surprisingly melodic work given its title, and in the slower second theme there is a strong feeling of bluegrass music, an influence that has come into the group ever since violinist Mateusz Smoczyński spent several years as a member of the Turtle Island String Quartet. Lenczowski’s writing for the NFM Orchestra’s string section is similarly eclectic, and it is to the orchestra’s credit that they get into the right rhythm for this music. Far too many classical orchestras attempting to play jazz-influenced works get the notes right but not the rhythm. Undoubtedly, having the Atom Quartet work closely with them had a good effect.

First violinist Dawid Lubowicz wrote Toccata, and here the jazz feel is mixed even more with a fusion feeling, but his scoring of edgy, repeated eighth-note figures for the orchestra’s violins and violas once again edge the music closer to bluegrass-jazz, although the string players’ device of striking their bows against their instruments to produce a percussive effect gives the music its stronger fusion-type beat. Yet, surprisingly, this too dissipates in the slow middle section of the work, which bears a much stronger resemblance to, yes, the music of Lutosławski.

I really liked Lenczowski’s composition Fale or Waves, a slow tempo piece that starts with the orchestra’s strings playing pizzicato. When the quartet enters, they are playing repeated rhythmic figures that run against the orchestra’s scoring, and eventually that shifts as well to create a complex web of sound before falling away and allowing either Zaborski on viola or Smoczyński on baritone violin (hard to tell the difference) play a solo, followed in turn by the full quartet with the orchestra.

The Concerto Rosso is the only work on this disc not written by a member of the quartet, but rather by Hanna Kulenty-Majoor, commissioned by both the Atom Quartet and the NFM Orchestra. It’s a minimalist piece in its constant repetition of just a few rhythmic cells, but a bit more driving than most minimalist pieces and harmonically interesting. At the 5:33 mark, the rhythms slow down to held half and whole notes for a while, adding some astringent harmonies, before resuming its forward thrust. Later on, we get a descending chromatic passage with almost metallic sounds produced by the strings (possibly created by rubbing their bows sideways against the strings) and other effects as the piece progresses.

Melody of the Prairie is a surprisingly American-sounding piece by Zaborski, lyrical and expansive, and is beautifully played by the quartet with gentle violin pizzicato behind them. This is followed by celli pizzicato as one of the violinists plays an improvisation in the foreground on the theme. Yet it is Smoczyńsli’s Cosmos that most grabs the listener with its originality; the slow string theme played against swooping sounds as the violins play atonal portamento passages against it. A solo, probably by the composer on baritone violin, is then heard against this backdrop before the tempo picks up, first by one of the solo strings and then with members of the string section behind him in a fascinating contrapuntal passage. This contrapuntal feeling continues as two of the quartet members play against each other in contrasting figures while the body of strings play a modal yet lyrical theme behind them. The edginess comes in with percussive effects while the quartet’s cellist plays a counterpoint figure and brief motifs are played rhythmically in front of it before the whole piece starts to swing. A bluegrass feel comes in at around 5:23 and stays for a while before the whole thing collapses in a sea of rapid, atonal figures, playing helter-skelter against one another like an asteroid storm before moving back to the pastoral theme. This is clearly exceptional writing.

Almost as interesting is Lubowicz’ Zawczešnie [Too Early], which starts with pizzicato cello against shimmering strings in a slow tempo and expands into an interesting lyrical theme, still with the string tremolos behind it. The two musical feelings then intermix as the piece develops. This, too, is a very well-written piece.

We end with Smoczyński’s Happy, an edgy sort of piece in uneven meter, played by the Atom Quartet with its usual energy before moving into yet another jazz-bluegrass rhythm. The orchestra string play “footballs” (whole notes) behind them as they swing and improvise in the foreground. Later, the orchestra takes over the eighth-note theme and develops it a bit while the quartet plays their “chops” (downbow rhythmic attacks on the strings, a technique invented by Turtle Island Quartet founder David Balakrishnan) as the piece comes to its conclusion.

Quite a nice CD, then, full of surprises and contrasting new music. Recommended!

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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