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Born in Warsaw, Paweł Szymański studied composition primarily with Włodzimierz Kotoński and Tadeusz Baird, and also spent three summers at the famously formative new music courses in Darmstadt. He began winning important prizes and commissions in his mid-20s, and his music, of course, eventually found its way to the Warsaw Autumn Festival.

As noted above, Szymański is known for recontextualizing traditional, mostly Baroque, musical materials and processes. (He also attended the International Summer Academy of Ancient Music at Innsbruck in 1976.) He began this with Partita II, his 1978 graduation piece, and everything since, he says, he has done within the same stylistic ambit, which he calls “surconventionalism.”

“The modern artist, and this includes composers, finds himself tossed within two extremes,” Szymański wrote in 1996. “If he chooses to renounce the tradition altogether, there is the danger of falling into the trap of blah-blah; if he follows the tradition too closely, he may prove trivial. This is the paradox of practicing art in modern times.

“What is the way out? Since you cannot fully free yourself from the trivial, you need to play a game with it, treat is as a material allowing you to stick to certain elements of the convention, while keeping it at bay through the use of quotation marks, metaphors, and paradoxes. Such treatment may result in a tangle of means leading to eclecticism. Censured and rejected in avant-garde times, and, to a large extent, rightly so, eclecticism is now coming back under the guise of postmodernism. However, there are many methods to stay out of eclecticism despite playing games with tradition. An important method for me is to violate the rules of the traditional language and to create a new context using the elements of that language.”

A work entitled quasi una sinfonietta will inevitably suggest Beethoven and the “Moonlight” Sonata, subtitled “quasi una fantasia.” This one certainly does, although Szyman´ski has more at play in his title, since the work was commissioned and premiered by the London Sinfonietta, in 1990.

The piece is both broadly and specifically allusive, both playfully ironic and provocatively thoughtful. The fractured intimations of the beginning are goaded by patterned Minimalist pulsation that also reminds us how rhythmically obsessive Beethoven could be. The mood is histrionically dark, with emotional outbursts that are as likely to suggest a Hungarian dance à la Brahms as a Baroque concerto. Great crashes from percussion and piano gradually collapse the music into static zones that slowly rebuild thematic coherence. Rhythmic energy returns for the brief, fleet finale; indeed, it is little else, on its way to a self-exhausting fadeout.

— John Henken