Henryk GÓRECKI (1933-2010)
The Three String Quartets
Already it is dusk 'String Quartet No. 1', Opus 62 1988 [15:43]
Quasi una fantasia 'String Quartet No. 2', Opus 64 1991 [33:02]
…songs are sung 'String Quartet No. 3', Opus 67 1995/2005
Royal String Quartet (Izabella Szalaj-Zimak, Elwira Przybylowska
(violins), Marek Czech (viola), Michal Pepol (cello))
rec. 8-11 February 2010, Potton Hall, Dunwich, Suffolk. DDD
HYPERION CDA67812 [48:47 + 55:54]
The only other recording in the catalogue of the first two
of the three string quartets by Henryk Górecki, who was born
in 1933 and died last year, is by the Silesian String Quartet
on Olympia OCD375. It dates from 1994. This is despite the fact
that all three quartets - a fourth was apparently unfinished
at the composer's death - were commissioned by the Kronos Quartet.
So this double CD from Hyperion is welcome in several ways.
In 2009 the Royals released an acclaimed recording (Hyperion
CDA 67684) of Szymanowski's first and second quartets and
the quartet in D by Ludomir Rózycki. The present recording from
these Polish players has the same intensity, precision and,
one might almost say, the same violence, insistence, drive and
almost 'fearful' presence as those other composers'.
But the Royals' playing is not heavy. It's not a pushy or crude
demonstration of strings' power to take over our ears. Although
at times - right from the start, after the introduction to the
first piece, for example - the unyielding thrust of the playing
does dominate our attention and take us aback a little. And
this despite the dynamic contrasts in which the music is also
rich. Górecki mixed quiet, tender, at times all but inaudible
passages with rougher ones. Not only the members of the quartet
but also Hyperion's engineers manage this very well. The result
is a unity not a shock.
Indeed, after experiencing Already it is dusk, the first
String Quartet (Op. 62), time has passed very quickly and one
is left feeling that the composer has aimed to, and succeeded
in, conveying something very precise, very finely sifted - and
without your understanding quite why. In its quarter of an hour,
just the right amount of musical material has led the listener
to draw just the right conclusions about Górecki's feelings
when he wrote the piece and to marvel at his success in conveying
them. That's because the Royals have understood the piece so
well; and not been tempted for a minute to allow its surface
contrasts - chiefly of tempo and dynamic - to be emphasised
at the expense of substance.
The Second Quartet with its title, 'Quasi una fantasia'
dates from the same period but is over twice as long - and contains
greater variety. As is to be inferred from that title, it too
acknowledges the influence of Beethoven; surely Shostakovich's
bleak quartet writing must have affected Górecki. This second
quartet, though, is less uncompromising than the first. While
retaining some of the latter's insistences, it boasts greater
variety - though there is a great deal of ostinato writing
- especially in the fourth and final movement - despite a preponderance
of writing in unison. The markings also give a taste of what
to expect: Deciso; Energico; Marcatissimo sempre;
Molto espressivo; Molto appassionato; Sempre
con grande passione; Molto marcato! This can be hard
for players to interpret intelligently if all they have at their
disposal is unbridled sawing. The Royals, for all their adherence
to such instructions, never for a second allow such extremes
to cloud or distort Górecki's music. They are as aware of the
arch and development of each movement, and the four movements
in their places as part of the second quartet's statement as
a whole, as they are of the need to promote precision and clarity
in any one passage. And seem more bent on both than on spurious
'atmosphere' for atmosphere's sake.
The Third Quartet - it, too, has a title from a poem: a lamentation
- is equally lugubrious. In five movements this time, it's but
a little more relaxed. Slower and more downbeat, it needs to
be listened to very carefully for its subtleties to be revealed.
The third movement - the only fast one; and perhaps the one
which most shows such influences as those of Shostakovich again
- is more jovial and illustrates the side of Górecki's character
which responded to fun and lightheartedness. Once more, it would
not have been enough for the players to drone and drown in woe.
The content of the music, not its atmosphere, was always needed
to convey what the composer wanted.
The Royals' precision, attention to detail, refusal to linger
or over-play anything and adeptness with nuance make this, too,
a highly accomplished interpretation. It's as sure of foot as
it is rich in well-digested interpretative strengths. The quartet
also successfully suggests the slow but now discernible progression
that Górecki's chamber writing made over the almost 20 years
during which he completed these three works. Although, when
taken as a whole, they represent a new phase in the composer's
writing, they too matured. Lastly, despite the musical influences
mentioned, the Royals make this music Górecki's own; and very
The acoustic of the recordings is dry; it verges on the claustrophobic.
But that complements the aforementioned intensity nicely. The
booklet has useful background and brief texts of the poems which
are starting points for quartets numbers 1 and 3. This music's
idiom, its preoccupations and unrelenting emphasis on implied
severity and vehemence (though never musical shortcuts to achieve
these) will be familiar to you if you know Górecki's famous
Third Symphony. But the slimmer and more fervent (though not
so outwardly lachrymose) idiom of the string quartet needs finely-tuned
and technically very sensitive touches from string players as
exposed as the Royals are. They live up to the challenge admirably.
review by Rob Barnett