Well, to make a long story short: this CD is fantastic! If not for any other reason, it’s worth the purchase price for Mikolaj Palosz’s new recording of Pawel Szymanski’s A Kaleidoscope for MCE – the only commercial audio-only recording of the piece in existence, at least to my knowledge.
But, of course, it’s not the Szymanski alone that makes this such a great disc. All the compositions included on this CD seem (to me, a cello ignoramus) extremely difficult and every single one is pulled off with great gusto and virtuoso flair. The arrangement of the program is intelligent: two dynamic pieces with a pronounced rhythmic pulsation at their core serve as a sort of frame, while the “inside” is filled with more easy-going stuff (in a rhythmic sense, of course, because none of them are by any means easy-listening, at least in a traditional sense of the word).
Sadly, I don’t have the time for in-depth comparisons of recordings (and with the sort of repertoire we’re talking about, I could easily cover all existing recordings), so I will concentrate on only one piece, and then add a few more samples without comment, hoping that they can speak for themselves.
Pawel Szymanski’s A Kaleidoscope for MCE happens to be, in my opinion, one of the two best pieces for solo cello written in Poland in the last 20 years (the other being Pawel Mykietyn’s microtonal, harmonic-ridden Sonata for solo cello – both pieces are, or at least sound, extremely difficult). There is another commercial recording of Kaleidoscope available, but that one is a concert video. You can find it in the 4 DVD set recorded at the Pawel Szymanski Festival in Warsaw 2 years ago (disc 3, track 1) – but not on the 1 DVD abridged version of that set! And (this probably speaks volumes about the state of contemporary music performance in Poland) the cellist in that recording is… Mikolaj Palosz as well!
I find it absolutely fascinating to compare these two recordings. To say that the difference is enormous is an understatement. Consider the opening of the piece. Here is the first 35 seconds of it as played on the live DVD recording:
It’s pretty good, but mainly by virtue of the excellence of the piece. In fact, Palosz sounds here a bit like a puffy locomotive. Which one would not realize (even if “one” had heard other performances of the piece – for the simple reason that “one” has managed to forget the details of those performances a long time ago) if not for the fact that we now have Palosz’s new, breathtaking recording. Note how many more notes he manages to fit into those first 35 seconds on the CD:
Yes, the playing in this new version is nothing short of stunning! It practically sweeps “one” of one’s feet.
Here are two more pairs of clips to let you appreciate the extraordinary interpretative progress this cellist has made in a relatively short period of time. (Granted, the newer is a studio recording, and there obviously might be some “cheating” in it, but who cares?) The difference here is at times slighter, but it is clear. The new recording is about a minute (!) shorter than the old one – owing mainly to that brilliant opening, but not solely to it.
An extract from near the beginning of the piece.
And the fascinating ending.
And, as I have already mentioned, this is not the end of the fun. All of the pieces on the disc are wonderfully performed. Here are short clips to illustrate that point (go here for full track listing).
An interesting feature of this recording is the inclusion of several (9 in all) very short (from under 5 seconds to under 2 minutes) improvisations by the cellist. These are not in any direct way connected to the music itself (at least as far as I can tell). The first one, though, is obviously the sounds of the artist getting out his cello, and the last one – of him closing the case. 😉
The idea to add these in between pieces seems rather odd to me. I can’t say I understand the intentions. If these are meant to serve as “palate cleansers” in between main courses, they are certainly too similar in general vein to those main courses themselves (they are extremely sonoristic, close in atmosphere to the Xenakis piece). If they are intended as independent compositions, I’m not sure I like the idea of having them dispersed all over the CD. Anyway, while I find the idea of inserting them onto the disc this way rather unappealing, I quite enjoyed the improvisations themselves. In fact, I would love to hear more of these. But then, I would generally love to hear as much from this cellist as possible. 😉
The disc is, of course, accompanied by a booklet with some photos of Palosz and an essay about the music and performance. The original text is in Polish and it has also been rendered into English – by the cellist himself! The English version is, if I may endeavor to judge such things, slightly unidiomatic (“Mikołaj Pałosz is giving everything out of himself and from the music.” is one of the odd sentences we find as early as in the first paragraph). I cannot say anything interesting about the text itself – I found it a bit dull and pretentious and did not feel like reading through (“This is an uncompromising vision of contemporary music – weird and strange, difficult and exceptional.”?) – quite a surprise, given that the author (Jan Topolski) is capable of first class musical commentary. Here he seems to be intent on flaunting a style which is neither strikingly original nor exceptionally beautiful: “after listening to the music included on the disc, you may get a better idea of the present art of sound”. First of all, why the hell use the odd phrase “art of sound”? Secondly, the most recent piece on this disc, Carter’s Figment II, comes from 2001, and the next one in line is from 1994 and then we back out to the 1980s. Is that really “the present”? (Unless, of course, the author means that by listening to this CD we can trace the roots of “the present art of sound”, in which case the wording is a bit off.) As far as I can tell, there’s a lot to glean from there in terms of information, but it is couched in a slightly irksome phraseology. But then, style is a matter of taste, I suppose. At least partly.
The sound is beautiful (at least on my low end system). All in all, a smashing CD. Mikolaj Palosz emerges as an extraordinary cellist. Any contemporary music fan will enjoy this. And if I may be allowed a tiny hyperbole: cello aficionados simply won’t be able to live without it. I should have commented on the bold and glorious selection of repertoire – but then, I should have commented on many different things. I love the disc and have been listening to it ceaselessly for a couple of days now – that will have to suffice for a rational, well argued recommendation (and also as a warning to those imagining this review is something other than an extremely emotional, subjective first response from an utter layman).