Doyle Armbrust
April 2015

U.S. concert presenters are in dereliction of duty, if the itinerary listed on the Royal String Quartet’s website is any indication. The Polish ensemble isn’t slated to make any North American appearances this year, and judging by the superlative playing on its latest release, Szymański and Mykietyn, it’s our loss.

The Royals have already recorded the extant repertoire from their more widely-known compositional countrymen, Górecki, Lutosławski and Penderecki, selecting instead for this release two contemporary Polish notables, Paweł Szymański and Paweł Mykietyn. The album opens with its most captivating track, the less captivatingly titled 'Crochet=72,' a.k.a. the first movement of Szymański’s Five Pieces for String Quartet. In it, we hear an illustrative example of the composer’s self-titled approach of 'surconventionalism,' in which modes and phrasings of the past are reconstituted without any sense of a wink-wink.

The pointillistic 6/8 swing of the work's second movement, vaporous harmonics intertwining of the third, and in fact the album as a whole showcase the Royal String Quartet’s sterling intonation and gutsy navigation of articulation, unafraid as they are of ripping rosin into steel. Playing like an unholy marriage between Vivaldi and Glass, the fourth movement feverishly traverses canonical triads while the fifth finds a violin shrieking like some wounded bird of prey, and throughout the quartet performs with unwavering verve and polish.

This zesty enterprise makes the Four Pieces for String Quartet (2013) which follows all the more peculiar, given that the first three-quarters of it revert to a somewhat tedious pastiche of Minimalism. The fourth movement, however, with its elongated, earthward slides and sumptuous microtonal architecture manage to vindicate the piece like an inverse of the 'Indiana Jones' tetralogy.

The delicate harmonics which permeate Mykietyn’s String Quartet No 2 (2006) are treacherous and finely-executed by the ensemble. With each voice panned to the left or right in the headphones, these hocketed, pitch-bent lines are delivered seamlessly, bringing the record to a close in a kind of deliciously corrupt, glass harmonica chorale.