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Henryk Mikołaj GÓRECKI (1933-2010)
String Quartet No. 3 Op. 67 “…songs are sung” (2005) [48:37]
Dafô String Quartet
rec. 2016, The Concert Hall of the Krzysztof Penderecki European Centre for Music, Lusławic, Poland
DUX 1302 [48:37]

To compose a five-movement string quartet that includes four slow movements is both unusual and brave, but Henryk Górecki did just that in 2005 for the Kronos Quartet, and I must say that it works remarkably well. The intensity throughout the work is remarkable whilst the central fast movement acts as a sort of release valve for the tension in the four outer movements.

The Quartet is the composer’s meditation on death and comes from his late period, which, despite the works earlier opus number of 67, was one of his last published works. It was begun in 1995 and the composer worked on the piece over the next ten years. It is somewhat at odds with his broader style of composition, although Agnieszka Jeż in her booklet notes does link the Quartet to Górecki’s most famous work, the Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, Symphony No. 3. It is no way typical; however, I do find that there is an echo of Three Pieces in an Olden Style for String Orchestra (1963), the work that introduced me to the Polish composer’s music. Górecki drew on the work of the poet Velimir Khlebnikov as his impetus for the Quartet, especially the line that reads “When people die, they sing songs.”, and it is this that formed the basis of the Quartet’s subtitle.

So, a quartet that is basically five meditations on death and dying might not sound like an enjoyable and uplifting work, but this can perhaps be seen as the composer’s view of his own mortality, By the time of his death in 2010, Górecki had been suffering from frequent bouts of ill health, some serious, for over ten years, and this must have influenced both his choice of poetry and musical style. He was, we are told, always profoundly moved by “unexpected and unjust death”. What I find is that, despite the nature of the Quartet, the music is far from sombre; this is music of great intensity, especially the first movement, but also of great hope. The notes talk of the influences of other composers on this Quartet including Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7, and of the affinity between the quartets of the composer and those of Szymanowski, which I fail to see. What I did find, though, on listening to this work for the first time, and also with this new recording, is that the third movement, Allegro -sempre ben marcato, reminded me in part of Michal Nyman’s Second String Quartet.

The Dafô String Quartet offers a performance that is both inspired and well measured; it is excellent especially in the way that they exemplify the intensity of the work. Perhaps it is because they are Polish, but they certainly get to the heart of this music, more so than the Kronos Quartet’s Nonesuch ‎recording (7559-79993-3) and this despite their being the dedicatees of the Quartet. It receives a recording to match. This is a wonderful disc, one that any devotee of Górecki’s music will want and cherish, as well as all those who are passionate about string quartets in general. This is the best chamber music disc I have heard so far this year and is an early contender for my Recording of the Year.

Stuart Sillitoe

Previous review: Brian Wilson


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