A title such as Liebestod obviously brings with it Wagner-like connotations, and true to form the new album by Polish composer Stefan Wesolowski (b. 1985) takes its title from Tristan and Isolde. But Liebestod, which was premiered at the Unsound Festival in October 2013, is no straightforward rendering of classical music or opera but is instead pitched by its publisher as “contemporary classical destroyed from the inside.” Thematically driven by “death, love, beauty and dirt,” the album is a heady blend of compositions arranged for piano, brass, strings and electronics.
Some might recognize the Wesolowski name from its appearance on Jacaszek's Treny, which Miasmah released in 2008 and to which Wesolowski contributed violin and string arrangements. Michal Jacaszek returns the favour by contributing soundscaping material to “Tacet,” one of six pieces featured on the forty-minute Liebestod. Also participating are Krzysztof Jakub Szwarc (viola), Jacek Balka (trombone), Lukasz Gruba (tuba), Tomasz Wesolowski (bassoon), Michal Krezlewski (piano), Sandra Geisler (voice), and Tom Bednarczyk (soundscapes), who supplement Stefan's own violin, viola, piano, and electronics.
We know we're not in traditional classical territory the moment “Ostinato” opens with field recordings of beachside noises and dog barks. Yet it also doesn't take long for a classical dimension to assert itself in the form of a droning organ chord and mournful viola melodies. The merging of elements associated with classical and modern electronic music that appears in the album's first setting is one that carries over as strikingly into those that follow, too, though it should be emphasized that the greater emphasis is more on the classical side. The nostalgic tone exuded by “Ostinato” and its lilting string melodies is something that also applies to other tracks.
“What the Thunder Said” eschews field recording sounds for a purer classical chamber style that undergirds emotional string melodies with piano playing that swells from a monotone plunk into a dense, Reich-styled series of repetitive patterns. A funereal, requiem-like tone infuses the stately “Hand Im Haar,” which ends the album with an arrangement that's sparser than the others. In such cases, the Wagner-Liebestod connection comes through most clearly in the heartfelt expressions of longing conveyed by the string playing as well as in the deep horn figures that lend ballast to a piece such as “Tacet.” In a marked change of pace, “Route” gravitates in the direction of techno in featuring a thumping 4/4 pulse, even if Wesolowski also threads into the piece repetitive piano patterns and trombone playing that call to mind classical minimalism in general and Glassworks in particular.
In less circumspect hands, Liebestod might have ended up a regrettable exercise in kitsch. But on this provocative collection, Wesolowski achieves an effective balance between the classical and electronic elements, resulting in a concise statement that both surprises in the unpredictable moves it makes and satisfies in the way its acoustic instruments merge with electronic sounds.