Music For Writers: A Royal Welcome For Two Composers

Image  - Lukasz Pepol
Image – Lukasz Pepol

‘I Could Talk About It For Hours’

Even if the Royal String Quartet’s performances of these works of Paweł Szymański and Paweł Mykietyn weren’t exemplary, the sheer enthusiasm of cellist Michal Pepol alone might put these performances right over the top.

When New York Public Radio’s free 24/7 streaming service Q2 Music chose the quartet’s new album, Royal String Quartet: Szymański and Mykietyn fromHyperion, for its Album of the Week feature, new sound boundaries fell away in the minds of writers who were listening.

Szymański, 60, and Mykietyn, 45, are related, we learned when we talked with Pepol, not just by their Polish cultural leadership but also by having worked together. One result is that happy thing, an album that provides two distinct voices that complement rather than clash with each other.

As violist Doyle Armbrust wrote in his very apt commentary for Q2 Music, our Pawel and Pawel are two “contemporary Polish notables” whose promise is in “surconventionalism” (Szymański) and “hocketed, pitch-bent lines” (Mykietyn). Neither composer is taking any hostages, and yet the quartet leaves far less blood on the stage than mystery. Here are tentative, probing, piercing opening tones that race off into dark distances, the quartet’s chords at times gathering the players in wrestling matches of surging force, then suddenly dissipating back toward the eerie, bad birdsong you hear in the opening of Szymański’s Five pieces for string quartet. You’ll find a free download of this piece’s fourth-movement struggle and hear at Hyperion’s site — this is one of the gutbucket moments I’m talking about, the players fairly chugging with the give and take of their gathered tussle.

Cover image“The Royals,” as the Royal String Quartet (RSQ) is called, are one of the newer breed of stylish, photogenic, personable ensembles now working the international listening lanes, touring with indefatigable determination and building a following in the concert halls of Europe with a skill that Armbrust noted should make any US follower wish they had North American dates this year.

A major turning point for the quartet came in 2004 when they were chosen for BBC Radio 3’s New Generation Artists program, raising their visibility quickly. Since late 2012, the RSQ has been based at Queen’s University Belfast, but is still dear to the home team where Warsaw’s Polish Ministry of Culture and National Heritage has created a Special Award for the ensemble in recognition of how much the quartet is contributing to Polish culture while carrying it forward into the world.  From London’s Wigmore Hall to Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw, Berlin’s and Vienna’s Konzerthaus and Beijing Concert Hall, the quartet’s audiences are legion, and the group’s many collaborators include Martin Fröst, another Music For Writers subject here at Thought Catalog.

I asked Hyperion’s folks to help me reach one of the quartet’s artists, and couldn’t be luckier than to be put into touch with Michal Pepol.

My first question to him — with gratitude for his English — is partly in recognition of the fact that the RSQ has a fine track record of bringing to the stage some of the Polish canon’s work we don’t usually hear.

Thought Catalog: Michal, speaking as a musician who plays this music, what’s the attraction of the Five Pieces and Four Pieces and Two Pieces by Szymański?

Michal Pepol. Image:  Magda Wunsche
Michal Pepol. Image: Magda Wunsche

Michal Pepol: It’s such a big question, I could talk about it for hours and still not feel everything was told.

We’ve been playing Paweł Szymański’s music for a long time. From the very start, we felt this is the kind of music we love playing: very emotional, intense, with a remarkable intellectual base and a very carefully planned form.

Everything we look for when we play music is there, plus Szymański is writing new music but knows his origins are in the past. He looks back with a sort of grief or regret that the tonality in the music is over and we, the musicians and the listeners, brought up on consonants in our music schools and concert halls, still somehow miss it. But there is no point in composing in the 21st century in the style of the first Viennese school.

So, knowing all this, he writes his own music, which is modern but doesn’t pretend to ignore the past. Actually, we had many very interesting conversations with the composer about the time, the modern approach, about what it means that the music is contemporary. (Is Beethoven contemporary when played now?) Questions that don’t have an easy answer.

Going back to your question: all three compositions of Paweł Szymański are different and you can observe the development of his musical ideas and language as the years go by. At the same time, they’re all very Szymański-like and it’s easy to hear that they were composed by the same person.

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There’s more: Read the full story at Thought Catalog

By Porter Ander­son

Writing on the Ether: Music For Writers: A Royal Welcome For Two Composers

Originally published by Thought Catalog at



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