In his centenary year, composer and conductor Andrezj Panufnik (1914-91) has been receiving much due attention. Here are his three String Quartets, from respectively 1976, 1980 and 1990; each is in a single movement, the first two lasting around the 20-minute mark, the remaining one half that length.
The First of the works opens in exploratory fashion, a solo-and-response setting-up before the four instruments enter as a consort with deeply-felt eloquence – private and fragile, and strangely compelling – with the music growing in intensity and volume, emotionally powerful if remaining lyrical and then becoming ‘fast’ in terms of tempo and spectral as regards sound. The piece seems inexplicably inconclusive.
I am inclined to suggest that if you respond positively to the chamber music of Shostakovich, then you will also do so to these works by Panufnik, for his Second String Quartet, given the name of ‘Messages’, although inspired by the “mysterious sounds of telegraph poles vibrating in the wind”, seems to come from deep within the composer’s soul; intensely communicative yet just as capable of sinking into an interior world of regret, and then rising in protest: Panufnik was a principled man who held his head high on behalf of good causes.
The epigrammatic and enigmatic String Quartet No.3, entitled ‘Wycinanki’ (“a reference to paper cuts familiar in Polish rustic art”) begins almost as blank verse, a sense of desolation, the listener eavesdropping on something personal. Rebarbative pizzicatos and a shrieking allegro interrupt before returning to the opening. It’s peculiarly poignant but, like the first two works, secrets are not easily given up and, aided by these recordings, return visits are deemed mandatory.
In 1954, Panufnik (who was knighted in the year of his death) left his native Poland and came to England, and soon after was appointed to the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, if only for a couple of years, composing being Panufnik’s priority. In Poland, he was good friends with his near-contemporary Wiltold Lutosławski (1913-94). The latter’s sole String Quartet (1964) is a great piece of theatre, innovative and individual, sometimes leaving the listener adrift. Yet this composer wrote nothing that he did not care strongly about or agonise over. The music is often thrilling, the listener gripped by aphorisms, effects and express-train speed and also by trying to assimilate the musical argument. If you feel to be without a route-map at times, listening to this work is often akin to enjoying the ride, if not always knowing to where, yet not wishing to abandon ship.
The Tippett Quartet’s excellent and dedicated performances, drily and closely recorded and therefore revealing of all that is sounded, certainly present engrossing music to return eagerly to.