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Twentieth Century Polish String Quartets
Andrzej PANUFNIK (1914-1991)
String Quartet No. 3 ‘Paper Cuts”.[1991] [11.06]
Grażyna BACEWICZ (1909-1969)
String Quartet No. 4 (1951) [20.33]
Karol SZYMANOWSKI (1882-1937)
String Quartet No. 1 (1917) [16.13]
Diverso String Quartet
rec. Hall of M. Karlowicz Music School, Poznán, Poland, 2017
RECART 0024 [47.59]

The Diverso String Quartet are a young group of three women and one man who have made their name especially in winning the Karol Szymanowski International String Quartet Competition in Poland. They were later given a scholarship by the Polish government and are performing across Europe.

Just three works are heard on this CD, but in the development of Polish twentieth century chamber music, they are obviously significant ones, or at least pieces by composers who made an important contribution to the genre.
Panufnik’s Third Quartet opens the disc but is the last work chronologically. It is a quite austere, multi-movement piece ending with a typical Panufnik sounding final section, which emphasises the iconic harmony of a major chord against a minor third above. The composer said that he has long admired “the Polish Paper cuts, the unique beauty of which, with their symmetrical design, gave me the idea for the structure of the quartet”. And those of you who know his music will recognise that his inspiration often came from a formal pattern worked out in advance. These wonderful pieces of art often express a folk element, which is also a strong characteristic of the Panufnik style. This virtuoso composition was commissioned for the 25th anniversary of the International String Quartet Competition.

This rather brief recital ends with Szymanowski’s First Quartet, written when he was on the cusp of stylistic change during World War 1. The third movement is a burlesque scherzo, which ends the work rather unsatisfactorily; the composer had intended a fugal finale. As for influences you will detect in the first movement some rather ‘Janacekian’ sudden changes of tempi and volume, perhaps a touch of Berg and Bartok and certainly of Debussy but there are several typical Szymanowski moments as at about ninety seconds into the middle movement. As to the performance the Diverso quartet are terrific at attacking the awkward corners and unusual effects but I would have liked more air and space – a more relaxed approach in the ‘Andantino semplice’ second movement. Incidentally movement three is written in four differing key signatures.

But the piece, which really impressed me, was the Fourth Quartet of Grażyna Bacewicz written also for a competition, in 1951 and later awarded first prize at the International String Quartet Competition. It falls into three movements. First an opening Andante that segues into a Beethovenian Allegro. The useful, if brief, booklet essay by Anna Lodygowska also alludes to this, deliberately Beethovenian temperament. There follows a touching and emotional Andante and the last movement is imbued with Polish dance rhythms and melodies in an Allegro giocoso with the emphasis on the ‘giocoso’, but with a strong energy reminiscent of Bartok and I was also reminded curiously of the Third and Eighth Quartets of Elizabeth Maconchy which are roughly contemporaneous. Not only is this a fine work of its own but also the fact that it was composed in the mid 20th century by a Polish woman is, as the essay implies, something unusual and, perhaps, prophetic. The performance is nothing short of magnificent.

As touched on, at only forty-seven minutes however this is a disappointing disc length-wise despite the well-balanced programme and pleasing repertoire. The performances however generally capture the spirit of these fascinating works and the precision and balance and indeed recording are of the highest standard.

Gary Higginson



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