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Aleksander NOWAK (b.1979)
3 x 4 + 8
String Quartet no.1 (2008-09) [14:50]
*Quantemporette, for clarinet, trombone, cello and piano (2008) [11:50]
String Quartet no.2 (2011) [17:02]
+Ulica Spokojna 3 (3 Peaceful Street), for eight cellos [12:07]
Silesian Quartet *(Arkadiusz Adamski (clarinet), Tomasz Hajda (trombone), Stanislaw Lason (cello), Piotr Salajczyk (piano); +Warsaw Cellonet Group
rec. Concert Hall, Karol Szymanowski Music Academy, Katowice, Poland, 27-29 June 2012, 10 March 2012*; Polish Radio, Warsaw, 31 March 2012+. DDD
CD ACCORD ACD 180 [56:00]

A two-second-long sampling of the opening of Aleksander Nowak's String Quartet no.1 makes it clear that this programme is not going to be a relaxing or foot-tapping listening experience. Fast forwarding to the second track, Quantemporette, offers little reassurance. Nor indeed is there any solace to be found in the accompanying booklet. In his notes, Marcin Trzesiok asserts that in the 20th century "we bade farewell definitively it seems [...] to beauty, metaphysics, high style, reason, narration, expression, even to the very idea of an author's statement." The diagnosis for contemporary music and poetry is even worse, as it has "mostly been about [...] struggling for breath" for the last several decades. Could this disc be an antidote to contentment?
In fact, Trzesiok's statements are simply the kind of polemical thing about which academics love to write reams, and perhaps from their ivory towers that is how affairs really do appear; it certainly gives them something to write about to justify their posts. Nowak would, like any other composer working today, doubtless carry on writing music even if his mother were the only person that would listen to it. In other words, contemporary music is doing well, as it always has done. It is the wider culture that has decayed to the extent that it can no longer understand music that lasts more than three minutes, lacks a thumping beat or is not hummable.
Nowak's atonal, microtonal quartets, often dense and insistently dissonant, will self-evidently struggle for audiences in such an environment. That does not affect the intellectual or emotive power of his music, at least as long as there are companies like CD Accord and artists like the Silesian Quartet to support it. In any case, Nowak is astute enough to work quieter, more reflective, more approachable passages and movements into his quartets. The contrast with whatever white-noise screeches and drones he may incorporate heightens their narrative effect.
The excellent Silesians recently gave a five-star performance on CD Accord of the collected string quartets to date of Zbigniew Bargielski, Nowak's older compatriot, and a somewhat mellower modernist (review). The Silesians commissioned and premiered Nowak's opening First Quartet, which throws the listener right in at the deep end. The title of the second work Quantemporette is, according to Nowak, an amalgam of 'quantum', 'temporal' and 'quartet(te)', which may or may not be helpful information. The clarinet and trombone bring a certain cheery smile to the work, peppering it with comical jazzy moments, and the piano later contributes its own minimalist riff - perhaps an easier starting point than the First Quartet. The Second Quartet too has more of a tonal air about it, perhaps due to its being commissioned by Pro Novum, a Polish engineering company that also sponsors the CD.
The tranquillity of the curiously titled 3 Peaceful Street, an imaginary address, performed here by its premiere-givers Warsaw Cellonet, does not last long. Within five minutes a kind of motoric pandemonium briefly reigns. That central episode, coupled with the title and the unusual scoring for eight cellos, makes this an especially memorable work. That said, there is much throughout the disc to challenge, invigorate and impress.
Incidentally, two of the performers of Quantemporette, cellist Stanislaw Lason and pianist Piotr Salajczyk, are members of the sterling Lason Ensemble, who also record for CD Accord. Their recent 'Polish Piano Quintets' disc is well worth consideration (ACD 178).
Sound quality here is good, if very bright. The Polish-English booklet notes, as related above, are provocative in their way. The translated English does have a slight foreign accent and occasionally goes over the top with punctuation, but these, like the shortish running time, are minor quibbles.
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