Henryk GÓRECKI (1933-2010)

The Three String Quartets
CD 1
Already it is dusk - String Quartet No 1, Op 62 (1988) [15:43]
Quasi una fantasia - String Quartet No 2, Op 64 (1991) [33:02]
CD 2
… songs are sung - String Quartet No 3, Op 67 (1995-2005) [55:54]
Royal String Quartet (Izabella Szalaj-Zimak (violin); Elwira Przybylowska (violin); Marek Czech (viola); Michal Pepol (cello))
rec. February 2010, Potton Hall, Dunwich, Suffolk, United Kingdom
2 CDs for the price of 1
Full tracklist at end of review
HYPERION CDA67812 [48:47 + 55:54]

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 remarkable.

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 calm.

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 Quartet:-

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.

Rob Barnett

Utterly committed playing of shockingly indefatigable violence and equally concentrated introspection … devastatingly inventive … very emotional.

Full track-List
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]