The Musical Narratives of Jan Krzywicki’s Alchemy

Albany’s release of recent works by Jan Krzywicki captures the unique and coherent voice of this Philadelphia composer at his best. The CD, titled Alchemy, highlights Krzywicki’s expressive and intuitive writing for woodwinds, the wall of sounds he pulls out of the piano, and an impressive blend of soprano voice, string trio, and guitar. Krzywicki’s highly individual style and musical language craft beautiful musical narratives out of mostly dissonant material that have a strong impact on the surface and leave you contemplating their implications.

I first became attracted to Krzywicki’s music through learning and performing his piece Fable for baritone saxophone and piano. I was particularly taken with the narrative structure of Fable: the way the music drew itself out of a simple beginning and built through numerous twists in the story, finally reaching a conclusion that was both dramatic and takes time to mentally digest. As a performer, I was impressed and challenged with Krzywicki’s meticulous attention to expressive detail, especially articulations, including ones that really gave the music an aggressive punch. The range of sounds demanded of the baritone saxophone, starting from nothing and going to the brink, made it one of those pieces I really had to put everything into emotionally and technically.

Jan Krzywicki

All the compositions on Alchemy deliver this same sort of impact. Partita for oboe and piano, the only piece with a formal title, maintains what I would call the narrative compositional approach Krzywicki handles so well. The five movements give different moods, from the improvisatory opening built out of simple ideas to the second and fourth movements’ heavy rhythmic orientation. Thick intensities sometimes give way to barren moments. At times the oboe soars towards a goal in its upper extremes, taking a few times and building the tension before reaching it. The piano punctuates, sometimes lays into a heavy groove for a short time, and pulls out sonorities ranging from booming low chords, plucked sounds, to ambiguous ethereal textures. Frederic T Cohen’s oboe’s playing possesses a great tone for the piece, expression fitting of the music, and handles the pitch bends well.

Alchemy for solo piano is perhaps my favorite track. Krzywicki’s intuition for piano sonorities pulls out dissonances that are coherent and naturally expressive rather than sounding like some stereotypical dissonant serialist piano writing. He uses the full range of the instrument, from chiming highs, booming lows, ferocious rolled chords, to playing on the strings. Pianist Matthew Bengtson captures the explosive moments of the composition well, and his use of expressive timing makes the notes really tell a story.

Five Lyrics for flute and piano draws its inspiration from short poems about birds at different times of the day. A wide array of timbres are drawn out of the flute, and Jeffrey Khaner’s tone really fills the room even when it’s fading into nothing. This piece has the feel of different musical events coming and going, and birds are evoked directly through trills, grace notes, and ascending flourishes. I was especially impressed with the dreamy start of the fourth movement going into a punchier style, and the way Krzywicki lets the music just breath in the beginning of the fifth movement, in no hurry to move ahead.

Alchemy (TROY1317)

In Evening’s Shadow was composed as a memorial for guitarist Peter Segal and draws on Purcell’s “When I am laid in earth” for musical ideas. The four-movement piece opens with a unique contrast of the guitar’s clarity with the string trio’s Penderecki-esque slides and dissonant harmonies. The singer is often left alone with only punctuations from the instruments, giving a somber and contemplative character to the music. Soprano Susan Narucki’s tone blends beautifully with the string trio, and her performance draws out the heartfelt sincerity of the poetry. An especially beautiful moment was in the third movement, with the singer accompanied by an austere guitar line and then joined by the strings, which by the third movement were imitative of the vocal melodies. Guitarist Jason Vieaux went from guttural to clean as the composition demanded. This instrumentation was well-handled by Krzywicki, and provides a good contrast from the three woodwind pieces.

I’ve abstained from commenting on Lynn Klock’s performance of Fable simply because having performed it myself, it’s hard for me to be objective about details of interpretation that are so personal.

What I like best about this release is its coherence. Listening to each piece gives the sense that Krzywicki has developed his own unique compositional style, with distinct melodic gestures, methods for developing the musical narrative, coherent dissonant sonorities, and often employing a highly punctuated rhythmic element. This coherence also makes each piece feel like an integral whole, with a sense of linear flow and distinct moments. When extended techniques are used, they sound very natural and intuitive to the compositions. My only criticism of the performances is that, at least for my tastes, I could use a bit more “going to the brink” from the woodwinds, particularly in terms of the more harsh moments and biting articulations. Often something of this is lost in studio recordings, and, to be clear, overwhelmingly I think the woodwinds do quite well at delivering both the ferocious and the barren elements of Krzywicki’s music. Hopefully this disc will result in more widespread performances of Krzywicki’s compositions. Music that is both highly dissonant and highly expressive is too often misinterpreted or roped in with abstract academic compositions, and recordings like this can help break contemporary classical music out of this dilemma.

Jan Krzywicki, Alchemy (Albany Records, TROY1317) Buy on Amazon (MP3)

David Pearson is a saxophonist residing in NYC.