This set follows the Royal Quartet’s acclaimed release of the
Szymanowski/Rózycki String Quartets (CDA67684).
The Polish composer Henryk Górecki completed his Symphony No.
3 Symphony of Sorrowful Songs in 1976. It was to be some
fifteen years before it rocketed to world popularity. Although
he may have found its celebrity a burden – he admitted to being
something of a recluse - it brought his name to a very wide
and appreciative artistic community and audience. It comes as
no surprise then that one of the world’s leading string quartets
would approach him for additions to their repertoire. That it
should have produced all three of these quartets is however
The First Quartet is in a single movement spanning just
over a quarter of an hour. The title is a variant of A Prayer
For Children Going To Sleep — by the Polish Renaissance
composer, Waclaw z Szamotul (c.1524–c.1560):-
Already dusk is falling, night closes in,
Let us beseech the Lord for help,
To be our guardian,
To protect us from wicked devils,
Who especially under cover of darkness
Profit from their cunning.
It is not a re-run of the impassioned and sincerely lyrical
address of the Third Symphony. Dissonant attack is juxtaposed
with soft consonance. At circa 8:00 the music begins to thud
with a long-sustained pummelling at triple forte. There’s just
a hint of Petrushka’s Easter Fair about the repeated
salvoes. This aspect is accentuated by a recording that fastens
onto the thunder and then fines down to the barest of whispers
at 12:50. It is in this way that the piece ends in trembling
The String Quartet No. 2 is in four movements spanning
some 34 minutes. The first’s metronomic and even mechanistic
ostinato provides a canvas for the viola’s slowly rounded melancholy
and fades into a shimmer. The second movement rasps and shudders
from the cellos and violas – there is a sense of a bitter winter
assault about this. Shostakovich was surely an influence. This
gives way to meditative writing which carries over into the
deeply impressive Arioso with its honeyed soliloquising
turning to razory vitriol - try the screeching violins of 1:28.
The finale is the longest movement at more than ten minutes.
It rushes forward, merciless and terrible, with a brusquely
optimistic folk-dance providing remission. This becomes exhilarating
until it suddenly stops at 6:25 and changes its deathly mask
for a beneficent smiling prayer. This transforms its shiftingly
nuanced character from benign to stoic to tragic to a descent
into a largely reassuring silence.
Górecki took a poem by the Russian writer Velimir Khlebnikov
(1885–1922) as his creative departure point for the Third
When horses die, they breathe,
When grasses die, they wither,
When suns die, they go out,
When people die, they sing songs.
The big Third Quartet is in five movements. The first of these
rises to a pitch of punched out paranoia. There’s impact after
impact at 5:40 onwards before it returns to a sombre quietly
repeated suspiration. This subdued and grave atmosphere carries
over with great meditative intensity into the Largo.
The music speaks of desolation with the occasional lance of
consoling sunshine cutting through but even then the light is
not dazzling but diffused. The little central Allegro again
features one of those sewing-machine chattering attacks with
its vitality sounding as if it may have been found in some wild
folk dance. It’s played with resounding attack and when it lets
up it makes way for some brief lyrical joy. Speaking of which
that is what we get in the Deciso penultimate movement
which is very romantic. It looks back to the nineteenth century
– similar but different in end results to Robert Simpson’s Razumovsky-related
quartets and the later quartets of George Rochberg. That romantic
mien finds its quintessence in the vinegar-poignant harshness
of the violins at 5:00 onwards. One might have expected the
quartet to end with the quiet consummation of the Deciso
but no. There is still a Largo-tranquillo to take
this large-scale work into another realm albeit one that is
understated yet profound and lyrical. This is devastatingly
inventive writing, tense and very emotional. Long attention
spans are de rigueur.
The excellent liner note is by Adrian Thomas.
These are utterly committed recordings and capture the smiting
power of Górecki’s writing in playing of shockingly indefatigable
violence fully attuned to his long sentences and paragraphs.
1 Already it is dusk 'String Quartet No 1', Op 62 [15'43]
Quasi una fantasia 'String Quartet No 2', Op 64
2 Movement 1: Largo sostenuto, mesto [7'49]
3 Movement 2: Deciso, energico, marcatissimo sempre [6'57]
4 Movement 3: Arioso. Adagio cantabile ma molto espressivo e molto appassionato [8'00]
5 Movement 4: Allegro sempre con grande passione e molto marcato [10'16]
… songs are sung 'String Quartet No 3', Op 67
1 Movement 1: Adagio, molto andante, cantabile [11'11]
2 Movement 2: Largo cantabile [12'55]
3 Movement 3: Allegro sempre ben marcato [4'51]
4 Movement 4: Deciso, espressivo ma ben tenuto [12'24]
5 Movement 5: Largo, tranquillo [14'31]