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Henryk Mikołaj GÓRECKI (1933-2010)
String Quartet No.3 (… songs are sung), Op.67 (1994-5, pub. 2005) [48:35]
Dafō String Quartet
rec. 21-23 April 2016, Concert Hall of the Krzysztof Penderecki European Centre for Music, Lusławice, Poland
DUX 1302 [48:35]

After a period of near pop-star notoriety in the 1990s, when one could hardly escape his Symphony 3, the Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, Górecki’s reputation has settled down – probably no bad thing1. We can now regard him in context as one of a group of late twentieth-century composers of approachable yet by no means shallow music alongside the likes of Arvo Pärt, Einojuhani Rautavaara and Pēteris Vasks.

Though composed later than the Third Symphony, the Third Quartet breathes a similar atmosphere: the reference to ‘songs’ in the title of both is no accident.  Three of the five movements are slow and reflective, and the overall style is largely cantabile, a direction specifically included in the marking for the opening movements, though any consolation arises from and serves to soothe a sense of anger and frustration and the meditation is often closely akin to a sense of desolation.

There’s also plenty of energy, especially in the third and fourth movements, marked Allegro, sempre ben marcato and Deciso – espressivo ma ben tenuto respectively. Even here there’s an underlying tranquillity, even more prominently to be found in the finale Largo – tranquilo. Indeed, as if in echo of the motto of Mary Queen of Scots2, the end mirrors the beginning. Thus the music becomes almost archetypal in coming full circle: while the underlying ‘song’ comes from a Polish translation of a poem by Velimir Khlebnikov which concludes with the line ‘when people die, they sing songs’ (śpiewają śpiesni) for Górecki, as for Queen Mary, death is the gateway to life.

The all-female Dafō Quartet have already recorded the very different chamber music of Penderecki (DUX0374, DUX0770). That’s hardly grist to my mill but the second of those CDs earned a welcome in these pages from Byzantion – review). Indeed, it went on to become an also-ran among his Recordings of the Year.

Though I hear more tranquillity in this performance than the violence and relentlessness that others have found in other recordings of the Third Quartet, and certainly less than I hear in the First and Second Quartets, that’s probably more to do with my own reaction than to any vagaries of the Dafō Quartet. When their recording of the First Quartet was available on a single CD, the cover showed the members of the quartet clad in various shades of red; it's appropriate that the cover of the new CD is more thoughtful in appearance.

If my recommendation for this idiomatic and well-recorded new performance is not quite unmitigated, it’s partly because the CD, for which some dealers are asking almost £15, offers very short value. At 48:35 there would have been room for Górecki’s First or Second Quartet, around 15 and 31 minutes respectively. They have, in fact, already given us the First Quartet (DUX1200, 3 CDs, The Very Best of Górecki); I hope we may have their take on the Second, preferably more generously coupled than the Third.

Then there’s the existence of the Nonesuch recording from 2006 by the Kronos Quartet, the work’s dedicatees (7559799933, download only or stream with pdf booklet from Naxos Music Library). That, too, comes devoid of coupling, but with the mitigating factor that the Kronos have already recorded Nos. 1 and 2 together on another Nonesuch release.

If it’s value plus quality that you’re looking for, the Royal Quartet offer all three Górecki quartets on Hyperion, two CDs but for the price of one (CDA67812 – on disc or lossless download from, the latter for just £8.99). That received an enthusiastic review from Rob Barnett; others, too, made it a top recommendation, even in preference to the Kronos. Having listened to the Hyperion download immediately after the Dux, I’m inclined to place it top of the pile, not just because it offers so much better value.  You don't have to be Polish to perform the music of Górecki but the Royal and Dafō recordings seem to indicate that it helps.  Both offer fine performances of this important late-twentieth-century work and both are well recorded.

1 MusicWeb composer profile by Julie Williams. For a surprisngly strong challenge to the Nonesuch recording of the Third Symphony, from ABC Classics, please see my review.

2 En ma fin gīt mon commencement. See also ‘In my end is my beginning’, TS Eliot, East Coker (Four Quartets). The motto certainly predates its use by Queen Mary, probably by many centuries.

Brian Wilson

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