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Henryk GÓRECKI (1933-2010)
String Quartet No.1, Op. 62, ‘Już się zmierzscha’ (‘Already it is Dusk’) (1988) [15.13]
Genesis I: Elementi, Op.19, No.1 (1962) [12.32]
String Quartet No.2, Op.64 ‘Quasi una fantasia’ (1991) [32.50]
Tippett Quartet
rec. 2017, St. Nicholas Church, Thames Ditton, UK
NAXOS 8.573919 [60.54]

It is always good to be reminded that there was much more to Górecki than the Third Symphony (‘Symphony of Sorrowful Songs’) which became so popular – and justly so – a couple of decades ago. I first came across Górecki in the 1970s, when a friend brought back from Poland some imperfectly recorded LPs. What struck me then, and something evident from this splendid new recording, was the steeliness of the composer’s voice.

Polish music in the years of Communism was often tough, and far more experimental than from Soviet contemporaries. Composers such as Kazimierz Serocki, Tadeusz Baird, Wojciech Kilar and – best known – Krzysztof Pederecki demonstrated radical boldness. As political pressures eased, underlying lyricism could find greater expression, most obviously in Penderecki. But some of this relaxation can be heard in the present CD, notably in the Second Quartet.

The earliest work, the 1962 trio Elementi, is concentrated, intense, even forbidding, from its first notes. By the time of its composition, Górecki had made contact with leading avant-garde figures, including Boulez, and the sound-world has little that is gentle. The music does not so much develop as grind on, (no prisoners are taken), but is rewarding on repeated listening.

Three quartets, two written for the Kronos Quartet, were composed from 1988 onwards. These fall more easily on the ear, while losing nothing in intensity.

Quartet No.1, ‘Już się zmierzscha’ (‘Already it is Dusk’), in one movement, paraphrases a line from a motet by Wacław z Szamoyul, a prayer for sleeping children. The theme has elements of the chorale and, overall, the work impresses for the range of moods in a short compass.

Comparisons with Beethoven are not inappropriate in the four movements of String Quartet No.2, ‘Quasi una fantasia’ from 1991. Much of the music is sombre and slow, notably in the first movement, the mood serious and concentrated. There are moments of great beauty, not least in the Arioso, and it is a rewarding and deeply impressive work. The emotional range is one to revisit, many times.

The Kronos Quartet have recorded the same two quartets on the Nonesuch label. The performances are steelier, and generally swifter, than here. I think the new recording gains in both recording quality (the Nonesuch was recorded a quarter of a century ago) and humanity – the little extra space gives the opportunity for the music to breathe a little more. Perhaps a stronger rival is the two-CD set of all 3 quartets, recorded by the Royal String Quartet in 2011 on Hyperion (Hyperion CDA67812). The second disc is devoted to the five-movement third quartet. Sound and performances are excellent – just as they are here.

A first choice is difficult to offer. The Tippett Quartet is admirable and Elementi is an important marker in the composer’s development. On the other hand, the Third Quartet is significant as a mature work. In an ideal world, buy both the Naxos and the Hyperion. Great works bear many interpretations, and these are certainly major contributions to twentieth century music. An alternative would be to buy this CD, with the new and very fine standalone Quartet No.3 from the Polish Dafô Quartet (DUX1302), a recording both beautiful and intense.

Michael Wilkinson

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