Already it is dusk (String Quartet No.1), Op.62
Quasi una fantasia (String Quartet No.2), Op.64
… songs are sung (String Quartet No.3), Op.67
Royal String Quartet [Izabella Szalaj-Zimak & Elwira Przybylowska (violins), Marek Czech (viola) & Michal Pepol (cello)]
Recorded 8-11 February 2010 at Potton Hall, Suffolk, UK
Reviewed by: Andrew Morris
Reviewed: June 2011
CD No: HYPERION
CDA67812 (2 CDs)
Duration: 1 hour 45 minutes
If ever there was a one-hit wonder, surely Henryk Górecki was it. Even when he died, in 2010 at the age of 76, his career was summed by a work rendered inexplicably famous during the 1990s which had itself languished in relative obscurity for a decade and a half. His Symphony No.3, known as Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, defied predictions that the wider public was not interested in contemporary classical music when David Zinman and Dawn Upshaw’s Nonesuch recording climbed the charts; yet even when its composer died most people would have been hard-pressed to name another of his works. The cheat answer would have been “at least three symphonies” (there is an unfinished Fourth), but a further answer comes from the Royal String Quartet’s traversal of his three quartets, two composed shortly before and one after the explosion of interest in his music prompted by that Nonesuch release. The Polish ensemble’s release joins the Kronos Quartet’s Nonesuch tapings of these three works and grants a window into a harder side to Górecki’s music than is familiar from his Third Symphony.
As with that work, Górecki’s musical voice favours slowly-building structures and sparse musical gestures, particularly in the Third String Quartet, and while there is nothing as consciously formal as the huge canon on which the Symphony’s first movement is built, the spans can be just as vast. The language of the quartets, however, is stark, and fuelled by the conflict of consonance and dissonance, and of movement and stasis.
The First String Quartet (1988) is the most focused and compact. Górecki immediately evokes the sound of plainchant, with barely audible lines built upon each other, but startling discords interrupt the quiet unfolding. The chordal music takes hold during the central episode, grinding and hectoring, before the long lines reappear and lead to a coda of blissfully uncomplicated stillness. Immediately, the virtuosity of the Royal String Quartet is apparent; the musicians’ command of overlapping planes of colour is exemplary and the concluding outbreak of tonality is played with a smooth, organ-like perfection of intonation.
The work is just fifteen minutes long; the Second is thirty and the Third almost an hour. The First grips with its slow escalation and retreat, but brevity is its ally and it’s hard to say that Górecki’s further quartets add much to it. The Second (1991) is fuelled by the same pared-down pathos as the First, exploiting similar contrasts, but the influence of Shostakovich becomes apparent in the second and third movements, almost as though the most remote and unforgiving slices of the Russian’s later quartets have been absorbed and elaborated upon. It is still an engaging work, even if the First offers the more succinctly distilled experience.
The Third, however, is a different matter. For reasons which never became clear, the composer held onto the work for years after completing it. It seems to have been ready in 1995 and although promised to the Kronos Quartet on a number of occasions, was not released for performance for a further decade. Reactions to it will vary from listener to listener: it’s either time-haltingly hypnotic or arm-gnawingly tedious. Górecki’s musical means are now even more scaled down. The first of the five movements is underpinned by a barely wavering ostinato from the cello while the violins present see-sawing chromatic ‘melodies’ that revel in their aimlessness. However, in the second movement, Górecki outdoes even this thrift; a drone-like bass is decorated with violins moving in thirds. The work is entitled ‘… songs are sung’, and indeed many of the melodic lines hover around the middle register like continually renewing vocal lines. The exception is the more upbeat third movement, though surely Górecki must have heard Philip Glass’s Fifth String Quartet before writing this? A strange moment of romantic tonality emerges here and reappears at the head of the fourth movement in the form of a totally unexpected quote from Szymanowski’s Second Quartet. After this, it’s back to the grey featureless landscape. As fine as the Royal String Quartet’s performance is, I can’t imagine wanting to listen again very soon. Hyperion’s two compact discs are sold for the price of one.