Upwards and upstream
If we give priority to sight, we can immerse ourselves in the atmosphere of ambiguous photography shots captured by the gaze of Wojciech Grzędziński. And so I did. Grzędziński’s pictures, which complement the concept of the album, reminded me that we are a species that is falling. Emil Cioran spoke about it, but also Tadeusz Różewicz, about our falling. We are falling, trying to learn how to fly.
In photographs, one can feel the merciless blow of time. A time that does not spare, but slowly devours us. It brings declines, but it does not give respite before a new beginning. History does not give it either; in its circular motion, it spits out hardships falling on subsequent generations. Young people could supposedly expect that the wheel of time would bring another challenge, and yet no one imagined that we would be pulled out of the rhythm of life by a pandemic. At that strange time, Andrzej Ciepliński and Tymoteusz Bies began to work on an ambitious portion of music. And while this may seem absurd to some, this is exactly what is worth doing in times of anxiety.
Art is the highest task and the true metaphysical activity of this life.
The repertoire chosen by the artists both opens and closes with Krzysztof Penderecki’s music. The 1987 Prelude for Solo Clarinet was created as a gift for the 40th birthday of a friend, British composer Paul Patterson. The miniature, devoid of bar lines, provides the performer with a lot of space to mark his or her individuality. However, giving the instrumentalist room to invent is atypical of Penderecki, who liked his compositional visions to be performed accurately and who is known for his relative reluctance to improvise. Andrzej Ciepliński uses that permission to be arbitrary with sensitivity. The Prelude – in particular its subtle beginning – gently and elegantly invites us to submit ourselves to the course of successive sonic events, during which we will discover the soloist’s virtuosity and taste. There is also a tone of certain universality in this short piece, as if it were outside the course of history. This is facilitated by the language of the work, but also by the performer’s naturalness and freshness of gesture.
Welcomed by that naturalness, we stand before the first of three extraordinary sonatas, which the musicians boldly revive through their joint interpretation. It cannot be a coincidence that the chosen sonatas are so similarly and strongly marked by circumstances.
The Sonata for Violin and Piano L 140 by Claude Debussy is the composer’s last completed work, the third of the planned six sonatas, which he began to write after dealing with the attack of a disease that finally defeated him. Debussy harshly stated that ‘this sonata will be interesting from a documentary point of view and as an example of what may be produced by a sick man in time of war.’ The stern and modest statement of the composer, concerned about the state of his country at the end of the war, does not reveal how much strength and at the same time innocence is hidden in the movement of the phrases of this stylistically mature, abundant, and variable music. Music that does not waste a drop of time.
Ciepliński undertook to transfer the violin text to the clarinet, which is a challenge, for example, since the performer needs to have a great potential in the instrument’s high register. However, a much more important aspect of that repertoire annexation is the possibility of admiring Debussy’s work performed by a soloist of rare sensitivity. This music requires moving from delicate tones of secret power to an atmosphere of unruliness intertwined with periods of respite in shades of nostalgia; ultimately, it also requires saturating its course not only with an atmosphere of hope and inner vigour, but with a true echo of those qualities. We are fortunate to hear all the above carried by the sound of clarinet, which changes without hesitation according to the needs of the variable poetics.
The Sonata for clarinet and piano, Op. 28 by Mieczysław Weinberg was created in the autumn of 1945, at the end of another absurd war. It was a time when, after the tragic death of Weinberg’s family from the hands of the Nazis, the composer came into contact with Shostakovich, who had long been a model for him as a creator, and now also became a friend. Thanks to his help, Weinberg settled down in Moscow, where he composed and performed for the rest of his days. The neoclassical elements that can be heard in the Sonata sound natural, and the novelties of the then music grammar do not deprive this music of its humanistic charm. The lightness of some phrases is disarmingly sincere, and so it is played – straightforwardly.
The Sonata for the clarinet and piano FP 184 by Francis Poulenc is one of the composer’s last completed works. Dedicated to the memory of Arthur Honegger, commissioned by the clarinettist Benny Goodman, it was to be premiered with the composer at the piano. However, the plan did not come true – Poulenc died suddenly of a heart attack, leaving the text of the Sonata unfinished, as far as dynamics and articulation are concerned. Among the other works making up this album, it is particularly this Sonata that allows us to admire the pianist’s (Tymoteusz Bies) artistry and invention to the fullest as well as the flawless agreement between the two instrumentalists. The nobility and variety of shades with which Bies adds colour to the contrasting motifs of the piano part extracted from among the phrases of the clarinet leave a mark not only in one’s memory. It is worth adding that Poulenc’s music was denied the full value by some critics, allegedly due to the limited range of emotional expression. Such a statement seems unthinkable after listening to the second movement of the Sonata. Especially in the interpretation of Ciepliński and Bies, in which one can feel signs of matters bigger than the music that carries them.
Three miniatures for clarinet and piano by Krzysztof Penderecki come from 1956, an already symbolic year – the time of student rebellions and of short Gomułka’s thaw. Coming after the musical and historical journey outlined by the previous works featured on the album, this short student cycle of a then 23-year-old composer sounds like a cry of youthful courage. Let us listen carefully to what it has to say.
Choosing a repertoire is always a significant gesture. Andrzej Ciepliński and Tymoteusz Bies chose works that inspire not only musical exploration. The works and stories of their creators seem to remind us of the strength of the spirit resistant to the waves of external unrest accompanying the breakthroughs; in addition, it reminds us of the key role of art in difficult moments of transition.