Royal String Quartet – Penderecki & Lutosławski [Hyperion]

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String Quartet No.1
String Quartet No.2
String Quartet No.3 (Leaves of an unwritten diary)
String Quartet

Royal String Quartet [Izabella Szałaj-Zimak & Elwira Przybyłowska (violins), Marek Czech (viola) & Michał Pepol (cello)]

Recorded 26-28 March 2012 in Potton Hall, Suffolk, England

Reviewed by: Andrew Morris

Reviewed: April 2013
Duration: 59 minutes



Following recordings of music by Szymanowski and Górecki, the Royal String Quartet continues its survey of the Polish repertoire for Hyperion with a disc of pieces by two of the country’s outstanding modernists: Krzysztof Penderecki (born 1933) and Witold Lutosławski (1913-94). Both composers underwent remarkable transformations of style during their careers: both rode the crest of the avant-garde wave in the 1960s, retreating from it to different degrees in the decades that followed.

Lutosławski died some two decades ago, but I find I have to remind myself periodically that Penderecki is still with us, albeit in a less-high-profile position than was once the case. His alteration has been one of the most dramatic of recent times and the three string quartets in this collection provide a stark demonstration of his shift in style. The first two (1960 and 1968 respectively) are short, terse works that run the full gamut of house-of-horrors bumps and screeches so typical of his experimental period. Pieces from this era found their way into seminal horror soundtracks, such as The Exorcist (1973) and The Shining (1980) and while a host of imitators made the style easy shorthand for skin-crawling terror, Penderecki’s works, appreciated in their own right, reveal the composer’s fascination with expanding the lexicon of instrumental techniques.

All of that expansion is evident in String Quartet No.1, which is littered with complicated instructions for percussive effects. Striking, banging and plucking are the main preoccupations, but Penderecki also plays with the limits of audibility. String Quartet No.2 is more interested in pitch: concrete and incisively delineated pitch is contrasted with the malleability of tones, particularly when rendered on string instruments. The performers here rise to every demand, whether it be rendering ghostly textures or stamping out violent chords.

The Third String Quartet (2008) offers huge contrast. Today, Penderecki’s musical language seems to owe little to previous intense trialling. ‘Leaves of an unwritten diary’ speaks more of Shostakovich than Schoenberg. Much of it is unambiguously tonal and certainly more conventional than the first two string quartets. But this feels like an evolution rather than a climb-down: if it gears to the hackles of those who claim Penderecki is a sell-out, then so be it, for much of it is very beautiful, albeit hollow and lonely. The references to Jewish folk-music also raise the troubling spectre of the story of the Jews in Poland, though however one reads the piece, it is focused and affecting. This performance makes the best possible case for the work.

Lutosławski’s sole String Quartet (1964) ought to be a classic of the genre, but its ferocious difficulty must have discouraged many ensembles attempting it. In line with many of the composer’s scores, the music is laid out on the page in a way that is initially bewildering but, on closer inspection, surprisingly lucid. It follows his often-used binary form that places an introductory movement before a main one, setting out means and motifs before building something substantial and affecting with them. A jarring exchange of barked-out octaves is one such pattern (similar to the use of the note E in the Third Symphony) and, while initially seeming aimless and diffuse, the work builds to tremendous drama and urgency. The Royal String Quartet’s performance affords clarity to every layer of Lutosławski’s musical vision, reminding us yet again that even when dealing with fierce complexity, his music is always precisely balanced and effortlessly economical. These musicians bring a wealth of distinctive characterisation to the piece, making for a gripping and invigorating experience, explicitly recorded.

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