Here’s the latest in the “Populista” series from the Polish Bôłt Records label, said series curated by Michał Libera. Many of the releases in this series have been trying to make some iconoclastic point about musical history, often 20th century musical history, using language and ideas sometimes verging on the polemic; whether or not one agrees with the radical views of Libera, it’s very interesting the way he manages to express an essay in musical form (or vice versa), channelling his thoughts through the work of other composers and players and the strong juxtaposition of themes. However, not sure if any of the above applies to today’s release. Populista Presents Raphael Rogiński Plays Henry Purcell (BR POP18) is mainly a showcase for the work of Raphael Rogiński, a modern Polish polymath who is a composer, guitarist, improviser, and student of ethno-musicology. Among his numerous accomplishments, he has given new life and meaning to early Jewish music, in projects such as Shofar. He’s also keen on blues, jazz, and improvisation, and another record he made for this series (which I must hear some time) was his take on the free jazz of John Coltrane. Plus he’s “done” baroque music before, where he displayed his guitar and piano prowess on a 2009 record called Bach Bleach.
This record, featuring 15 carefully chosen short pieces by Purcell, is a mix of songs and instrumentals on which Rogiński plays all the guitars, and is joined by featured guests Olga Msyłowska on voice and synths, and Sebastian Witkowski on synths. Classical music purists may be affronted by the use of modern instruments (even the guitar is electric and may have some added tremolo and phasing effects) in the service of these venerable compositions, and some may take exception to the relaxed singing style of Olga Msyłowska, who makes no concessions to supposed “authenticity” of early music performance. In places, she might as well be singing a smokey Billie Holiday ballad or even a cover version of a Sade song; on ‘What A Sad Fate’, her emotional investment is almost nil, and she simply sounds bored, lamenting no more sad a fate than losing your mobile phone. Rogiński’s guitar work is more palatable, and he certainly brings the sort of precision in his playing one might associate with the music of Purcell; but he also does it slowly, with a certain deliberation, which one might almost mistake for tentativeness.
However, we have to point out that Rogiński’s ambitions are much more grandiose than simply doing right by Henry Purcell. He’s trying to make some wider enquiry about Englishness, and English music; “I am sure there is a sense of strong continuity in English music,” he claims, and goes on to make an extensive list of supposedly related artists that includes William Blake, Benjamin Britten, Bert Jansch, Dead Can Dance, Joy Division, and Led Zeppelin. That list alone would fuel an interesting conversation over a mug of beer or two. However, our friend’s claims about English music verge on the mystical: “the sound of it is something like a call from moors, delicate and blurred by the wind. Perhaps it does not suit the contemporary English people, maybe it is more of a sound of King Arthur.” 1 He believes that there are emotional resonances buried in the music of Purcell, some of which are so complex and personal that we might not even be able to understand them today. I suppose his task has been to seek out these emotional truths, and try and restate them through his contemporary reinterpretations on this record.
Well, it’s a good effort. I like his unorthodox approach – synths and electric guitar for Purcell is not a bad way to go. Plus anyone who can find such consonances within such a broad sweep of English music, taking in folk, rock, post-punk and Elizabethan composers, must have a solid head on his shoulders. But let’s not forget that in the 1960s and 1970s Bert Jansch and his friend John Renbourn have also done a very solid job in re-presenting Elizabethan music to a populist audience; and before them, there was Alfred Deller, who not only investigated the music at a time when it was deeply unpopular and also largely neglected by the music establishment, he sang and performed it exquisitely. I’ll say that if I had to choose between Deller’s achingly beautiful recording of Purcell’s ‘Music for a While’ and the version here, sung so listlessly and without much sense of purpose, there’s really no competition. As to the emotional range, I have no doubt that the educated music theorist Rogiński has found more depth and complexity in Purcell than I will ever manage to in my lifetime. Yet he manifests so little of that range on this record; to put it another way, it’s all in the same pitch, the same tempo, and tends to work away at the same single register of human feeling (sadness). Great ideas, music is well performed for the most part, but the album is rather narrow when it comes to delivering on its promise. From 2nd May 2017.
- It’s at this exact point that I could see where he and Libera probably share some common ground. ↩