Henryk GÓRECKI (1933-2010)
The Three String Quartets
CD 1
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]
CD 2
…songs are sung 'String Quartet No. 3', Opus 67 1995/2005 [55:54]
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]

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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 enjoyable too.

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.

Mark Sealey

An excellent set of recordings of all Górecki's finished string quartets played utterly sympathetically and with real insight.