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Krzysztof PENDERECKI (b.1933)
Leaves of an Unwritten Diary (version for string quintet) [18:30]
Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
String Quintet No. 2 in G, Op. 77 [35:22]
Silesian Quintet (Kwintet Śląskich Kameralistów)
rec. 7-11 July, 2014, Silesian Philharmonic Hall, Katowice, Poland

Krzysztof Penderecki’s Leaves of an Unwritten Diary is a late-period masterpiece: deeply emotional, suffused with memories and echoes of his childhood, and unusually focused on storytelling. Dating from 2008, the work is part of Penderecki’s “neo-romantic” renaissance, when he turned to older harmonies, probing melodies and episodic structures to give his music a more autumnal, questing feel than it previously had. Leaves belongs with such masterworks as the Sextet (for piano, clarinet, French horn, and strings) and Horn Concerto.

After a slow introduction with a searing viola melody, Leaves grows more agitated and distraught. This is not mere Sturm und Drang: it feels personal. According to the booklet, “We witnessed the composer’s highly emotional reaction to the premiere performance. He went on to the stage and told a very personal story about how the music was created.” A gypsy folk-tune begins to creep in during the last five minutes, in shape-shifting forms, at one point resembling Shostakovich, at another Bartók. “My father,” Penderecki says, “played that tune on the violin. He played it obsessively, each time slightly differently, coming up with all kinds of variations. The entire piece is a sentimental journey into long-abandoned landscapes.” I wish all composers wrote about their music so eloquently, evocatively, and accurately.

All the above is true whether you hear Leaves in its original form, as String Quartet No. 3, or in its revision with added double bass. The Royal Quartet recorded the original version for Hyperion (our review: the work has “rare pathos and tenderness”), and now the quintet version is being premiered by the Silesian Quintet. It’s an incredibly powerful performance. The double bass doesn’t get much to do, honestly; he’s mostly there to fill out the bass sonorities occasionally. Penderecki prefers the five-player version, according to the booklet.

The coupling is Dvořák’s wonderful quintet Op. 77. Dvořák was one of those composers who wrote so many top-level masterpieces that the merely really-good stuff gets forgotten. In the shadow of the “American” string quintet (and the “American” quartet, and the Dumky trio…) lies this quintet from 1875.

1875 was Dvořák’s breakout year: between this quintet, the Fifth Symphony, the serenade for string orchestra, and the first piano trio, the composer’s music reached a whole new level. And this piece is impossible not to love: it bursts with cheery tunes and folksy charm, in the same key and same spirit as the Eighth Symphony.

The Silesian Quintet’s performance is exemplary. They are a little too relaxed in the first movement, but their finale bursts with energy and excitement, the andante is utterly lovely, and the scherzo is a lot of fun. Technically, the players can handle every challenge without worry.

Acte Préalable is a rising Polish label that has specialized in the unknown byways of Polish music. They’ve dug up unknown pieces in library archives and given many a world premiere. It’s exciting to see that their artists can also deliver great performances of famous composers and beloved classics. I know the Penderecki string quintet is not yet a beloved classic, but soon enough it will be, at least in my house. Listen to it and decide for yourself.

Brian Reinhart