by Alex Ross
The New Yorker, March 3, 2014
The devastation visited on Warsaw during the Second World War also wiped out a fair amount of music. Witold Lutosławski and Andrzej Panufnik, two young Polish composers who had played together as a piano duo in cafés during the German occupation, saw most of their scores destroyed. The loss was, in a way, liberating: Lutosławski and Panufnik carried on with increasing audacity, testing the aesthetic limits that fell into place after the Communist takeover. Panufnik defected to Britain, in 1954; Lutosławski remained, becoming the pilot figure in a remarkable surge of musical activity that has been named the Polish Renaissance. A superficial liberalization of Polish culture in the post-Stalin era allowed for the importation of avant-garde ideas. Visitors to the Warsaw Autumn festival, which began unfolding in 1956, were surprised to hear bruising dissonances and roiling textures in works by Lutosławski and his younger colleagues Krzysztof Penderecki and Henryk Górecki, among others. The Polish avant-garde tended to be less studied, less process-driven, than its Western counterpart; it had a kind of psychedelic extravagance, which came to the fore most spectacularly in Penderecki’s “Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima,” a sustained screaming of strings that was first heard at Warsaw Autumn in 1961.
Of the leaders of the Polish Renaissance, only Lutosławski, whose centenary was celebrated around the world last year, entirely fulfilled his promise. Joining sonic spectacle to structures of tensile strength, he proved to be one of the century’s supreme musical architects. I have never understood why his Third Symphony, of 1983, isn’t heard as often as Beethoven’s: it packs the same heroic wallop. Penderecki, now eighty, remains industrious, but since the mid-seventies he has gravitated toward a formulaic neo-Romantic style. Górecki had an astonishing success when, in the early nineties, the Nonesuch label’s recording of his austere, meditative Third Symphony sold more than a million copies. Subsequently, his output slowed, as if the phenomenon had unsettled him. He died in 2010, leaving behind an unfinished Fourth Symphony, which will have its première in London, in April, in a version completed by his son, Mikolaj. Framed by harsh chords and bass-drum thuds, the score may disappoint fans of the mesmeric Third, but it looks to be a potent farewell.
Although composers of younger generations have yet to match the international renown of the postwar trio, the Polish scene remains frenetically diverse. I recently spent a weekend in Warsaw, attending a performance of Paweł Szymański’s opera “Qudsja Zaher,” at the Polish National Opera, and an all-Polish program by the Sinfonia Iuventus. I also picked up stacks of CDs and videos, many of them supported by such state-linked institutions as the Polish Music Information Centre, the Adam Mickiewicz Institute, and Warsaw Autumn. The music ranges from Mahlerian opulence to laptop-generated anarchy, but at all points on the spectrum there remains a joy in the properties of sound. It’s as if a primal scene were being repeated: young composers find a piano in a ruined space and see what glorious noise they can make upon it.
Szymański, who will soon turn sixty, is an unclassifiable loner. When he took his bows after “Qudsja Zaher,” he had the look of a grizzled biker. Yet he is a composer of a severe and inward cast, schooled in old arts of counterpoint. An EMI disk of his piano music features a seven-movement Baroque suite that not only sounds like Bach but could be mistaken forBach—the latter being rather more difficult to accomplish than the former. Such pastiche is atypical; more often, Szymański distorts his historical echoes within a modern frame, as fixed pitches melt away into glissando textures or ominous silences intrude. At times, he recalls the melancholic collage style that was common among late-twentieth-century Eastern European and Soviet composers, notably Alfred Schnittke. But there is little sense of nostalgia or loss in Szymańskis layered manipulations of the past. Rather, it’s as if a sensitive extraterrestrial had received transmissions of a classical-radio broadcast and composed new works according to an unknown logic.
Szymański completed “Qudsja Zaher” in 2005, setting a libretto by the filmmaker Maciej J. Drygas, but the opera reached the stage only last year, after several previous attempts fell through. A cryptic mythological narrative, it tells of an Afghan woman who throws herself from a derelict refugee ship and finds herself at the threshold of the underworld. The Ferryman demands payment for passage to the land of the dead; Qudsja, short on money, remains in limbo, drowned souls chanting around her. Her predicament is solved by the unexplained entrance of an Icelandic schoolteacher and a class of fifty boys. As they chant stories from history and legend, it emerges that Qudsja is the reincarnation of Astrid, a suffering woman who passed this way a thousand years ago. The Ferryman lets her through. At the end comes another scene of sinking, with searchlights scanning the depths; the cycle is beginning anew.
The score contains a few neo-Baroque passages, but for the most part it avoids historical references, as befits the netherworld setting. There are high, dissonant wind chords, like the shredding of steel; descending string glissandos, suggestive of bodies and wreckage drifting downward; low, muffled prepared-piano notes, like pinging sonar. The chorus of the drowned speaks and sings in a multilingual haze; the Icelandic boys chant archaic raps; Qudsja, a soprano role, alternates between spare, searching arioso lines and stifled screams. Most of the time, these elements are isolated from one another, but at climactic moments voices and orchestra gather into an overpowering, electronically enhanced mass. In all, the work creates an authentic ritual strangeness.
The production, by the Lithuanian director Eimuntas Nekrošius, with sets by Marius Nekrošius, spoke its own symbolic language, not always easily decoded. I never grasped the import of a flapping birdlike contraption that kept popping up in the background. Yet Nekrošius’s oceanic forms achieved a dark beauty, in keeping with Szymański’s score; especially haunting was the image of propellers hanging down from above, signifying the Ferryman’s vessel. Katarzyna Trylnik was pure-toned and affecting in the title role; Wojciech Michniewski conducted incisively. Afterward, inching across an iced-over Piłsudski Square, I felt that I hadn’t quite left the world of the opera.
The Sinfonia Iuventus concert, which took place on the premises of Polish Radio, with Marzena Diakun conducting, offered a glimpse of the youngest Polish generation, in the form of Ignacy Zalewski, who is twenty-three. His Symphonic Variations are a riot of inventive orchestration in search of structural coherence—not surprising, or discouraging, in a still developing composer. Panufnik’s 1961 Piano Concerto, with Piotr Sałajczyk at the keyboard, provided a contrasting lesson in compositional discipline, with a whizz-bang ending to boot. Panufnik’s centenary arrives this year; he deserves an audience outside Poland and Britain, the only countries where he is regularly performed.
As for the dozens of younger figures I encountered on CD, I’ll single out Agata Zubel, a thirty-six-year-old composer-vocalist of multiple and formidable gifts. Her own works are experimental in method and visceral in impact: “Not I,” a 2010 setting of Beckett, veers between guttural spluttering and otherworldly song, her voice multiplying into an electronic mob. On a recital disk called “Poems,” Zubel delivers smoky accounts of vocal pieces by Copland, Scriabin, Berg, and Szymański. And, on “El Derwid,” Zubel joins the cellist Andrzej Bauer and the electronic musician Cezary Duchnowski in paying unconventional homage to Lutosławski: they transform slinky pop songs that he wrote in the fifties, under the pseudonym Derwid, into an avant-pop tour de force, with Zubel’s live-wire voice at the center. After six decades, the Polish Renaissance rumbles on.