Kinga Augustyn is Turning in Time

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what a performanceCARTER: Four Lauds. BERIO: Sequenza VIII. PENDERECKI: Capriccio. BACEWICZ: Violin Sonata No. 2. YUN: Köngliches Thema. D. KAYE: Turning in Time / Kings Augustyn, vln / Centaur CRC 3836

Kinga Augustyn, a New York-based violinist who also gives lessons in addition to performing, presents here a program of some really serious modern music. This is clearly not a CD for Romantic music-loving wimps! The onesheet accompanying this CD has but one statement, that “Kinga Augustyn has a very strong presence in social media.”

As much as I enjoy modern music, however, I was a bit apprehensive when starting this CD because the first four tracks, taking up 15 minutes, are by Elliott Carter, who wrote some of the ugliest and most abrasive modern music of all time. Much to my surprise and delight, however, these pieces are more lyrical than usual for Carter (perhaps because they were written for the violin, an instrument with a more limited range than a piano and one given to lyricism) and Augustyn plays them with an absolutely gorgeous tone without sacrificing the occasional edginess in the music. Moreover, I found the pieces themselves to be more coherent than usual for Carter; they actually go somewhere and say something. Perhaps it also helped that the first two pieces were dedications to fellow composers who had passed away, Aaron Copland and Goffredo Petrassi, both of whom wrote in a more accessible style than Carter.

But make no mistake, Augustyn is a superb violinist, perhaps not as distinctive-sounding as Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg or Joshua Bell but clearly a major talent. She knows how to caress a phrase without making it sound too sugary, and she knows how to push the beat when called for without making it sound awkward or abrasive. To a certain extent, her playing reminded me of Josef Szigeti but with a more beautiful tone.

Indeed, the initial good impression she made at the very beginning of this program continued throughout the CD. I sat mesmerized by her playing; she is a wizard who casts a spell on her listeners, and if she can do this through the “cold” medium of a CD, just imagine how potent her playing is in live performance. In the last Carter piece, “Fantasy—Remembering Roger,” she makes her violin getup and dance, and baby, if you can make your violin dance to a tune by Elliott Carter, that’s saying something!

She continues this lyrical approach even in the very non-lyrical Sequenza III of Luciano Berio, beginning with a continuous series of close chords and drone effects that vary only slightly in pitch through the opening statement, with occasional fast passages thrown in for color, like a hoedown at a nervous breakdown. (Who says I can’t come up with colorful analogies?!?) I also found it interesting that in spite of the odd effects that Berio calls for in this piece, she managed to maintain her beauty of tone no matter what without softening the impact of the music. That’s some kind of bow control! Moreover, this control continues in the middle section, where she is called upon to alternate a sort of repeated moto perpetuo figure in 16ths while interjecting sharp, abrasive downbow chords without interrupting that flow of 16ths. You GO, girl!!!

Just as Augustyn plays Carter in a way that makes the music attractive without sacrificing vitality, so too does she play Penderecki, another composer I am usually less than fond of. In her hands, his Capriccio, here receiving its first-ever recording, is a fascinating piece of rapidly contrasting moods and figures, energetic and with a few strange, wild, upper-range fast figures to add interest. She is a wizard of her instrument.

The other Polish composer represented here is the great, and still underrated, Grażyna Bacewicz. Augustyn’s performance of the Solo Violin Sonata No. 2 is, I think, even a little better than the excellent recording by Annabelle Bertomé-Reynolds on Muso because Augustyn’s lyrical phrasing is just a bit more rhapsodic. Since Bacewicz was herself a violin virtuoso, I think she’d be as thrilled by this performance as I was.

Isang Yun’s Köngliches Thema, based on a melody from J.S. Bach’s A Musical Offering, is a fascinating piece that bridges the Baroque with the modern, something that I’m always a little surprised that more living composers do not attempt. Yun took the music places where Bach did not tread, but had he not been as hidebound to musical tradition as he was he might have attempted a few of these variants. The program ends with Debra Kaye’s Turning in Time, another first recording. Although a good piece, it is not quite as arresting or innovative as those which preceded it—the development section struck me as somewhat ordinary and predictable—but Augustyn holds your interest simply because she is such a master musician.

I don’t know whether or not this is Augustyn’s first CD, but it is clearly a firm musical statement by a musician who is not only committed to playing modern composers but also an absolutely first-rate technician. She goes straight to the top of my favorite living violinists, and you can be assured that I will be on the lookout for further releases by her. If this album had been released by EMI, I would nominate it for a Great Recordings of the Century designation.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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