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Karol SZYMANOWSKI (1882-1937)
String Quartet No. 1 in C major Op.37 (1917) [19:17]
Ludomir RÓŻYCKI (1884-1953)
String Quartet in D minor Op.49 (1915-16) [32:41]
Karol SZYMANOWSKI (1882-1937)
String Quartet No. 2 Op.56 (1927) [18:20]
Royal String Quartet
rec.  Potton Hall, Suffolk, 21-23 March 2008
HYPERION CDA67684 [70:20]


Experience Classicsonline


The two Szymanowski quartets are not easy to programme. When the Camerata Quartet did so on Dux 0366 they added nothing else and their disc lasts thirty-five minutes, making recommendation difficult. The Schoenberg Quartet on Chandos CHAN 10405 took a more sensible route and added both Janáček Quartets. Whereas the Goldner on Naxos 8554315 took the very much less expected option of adding Stravinsky – the Concertino, Three Pieces and Double Canon.

Whichever road you go down you need to combine secure technical address with a wide range of tone colours and an incisive understanding of Szymanowski’s heady idiom. Half measure in this repertoire is not really an option. 

The Royal String Quartet, all Polish, fortunately dig in with considerable panache and lucid strength. I think it’s fair to say that they tend to eclipse their rivals by virtue of the greater finesse and fluency they evoke. In the First Quartet for example they prove technically stronger than the Schoenberg and Goldner groups. They are also more veiled and transformative than the Camerata, whose faster tempi nevertheless offer a different and valid gloss on the music. If you prefer a blunt spoken, forceful Szymanowski the Camerata is certainly the foursome for you, recorded in a ‘cathedral’ style acoustic as well. But I think most would prefer the warmer Hyperion sound and the sense of coagulatory eroticism the Royals extract, the plangent lyricism of the central movement – and its final insistent cello line, and especially the Burlesca finale with its unison attaca and pizzicato vitality. 

In the Second Quartet the Royal’s sense of colour and texture pays rich dividends. Vitality is matched by a sure concern for the terrain of the music making, for its erotic ebbs and falls, and for its more barbaric enclosures. In this the extra time they expend, certainly in relation to the Camerata, is part of a pattern of music making that ensures that the folkloric elements are sinuously foregrounded. They’re especially successful in the finale of the Second, which is not taken too quickly – and certainly not too slowly – but allows both the torpid repose and the more galvanic eruptions of the music to generate a natural momentum. 

The Royal Quartet has chosen to include the 1915-16 Quartet of Ludomir Różycki (1884-1953). It’s couched in a very much more conventional and ‘approachable’ form. Crudely speaking, take Debussy and Suk and shake them together and that’s something like the result of this three movement, near thirty-three minute work; that’s to say it’s getting on for as long as both Szymanowski quartets put together. It’s fluidly constructed though, warmly textured and reaches an apex of languid impressionism in the central slow movement. I took most to the pizzicato-laced finale where the folk-saturated joie de vivre is unmistakeable. It’s a minor work, certainly, but despite the Parisian cloth worth an occasional hearing. 

This is now a strong front-runner in the current Szymanowski quartet discography. 

Jonathan Woolf 

see also Review by Rob Barnett




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