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Karol SZYMANOWSKI (1882-1937)
String Quartet no.2, op.56 (1927) [17:35]
Andrzej PANUFNIK (1914-1991)
String Quartet no.3, 'Wycinanki' (Paper Cuts) (1990) [10:34]
Krzysztof PENDERECKI (b. 1933)
String Quartet no.3, ‘Leaves of an Unwritten Diary’ (2008) [18:00]
Ătma Quartet
rec. 2018, Concert Hall of the Krzysztof Penderecki European Centre for Music, Lusławice, Poland
CD ACCORD ACD252-2 [46:30]

I had not previously heard Karol Szymanowski’s String Quartet, op.56 but I was impressed with it. It was composed in 1927 for entry into a competition run by the Musical Fund Society of Philadelphia; alas, he did not win it and the $5000 first prize was shared between Béla Bartók for his String Quartet no.3 and Alfredo Casella’s Serenade for Five Instruments.

Szymanowski’s quartet is conceived in three movements. The opening ‘moderato’ has been defined as being written in ‘song’ or ternary form, although it was meant to have been a ‘sonata allegro.’ The ‘technical problem’ is the lack of a development section and the recapitulation of the ‘second subject.’ (The Szymanowski Companion, 2016); on the other hand, this does not really bother the listener approaching this tranquil but haunting movement. The succeeding ‘vivace scherzando’ displays powerful and direct playing, deploying a wide-variety of string technique. This is a ‘rondo’ with several episodes presenting music that is vibrant, folk-inspired and typically full of gusto and ‘dance-like energy.’ The contrasting sections are quiet and introverted. The sound world of the ‘finale’ is quite scary, beginning with a couple of fugal passages, one using an explicit ‘highland’ (from the South of Poland) folk song. The music builds up to a terrifying climax, finally displaying optimism and ultimate triumph.

It has been a pleasure and delight to listen to a work that for me (on first and second impressions) is a masterpiece; I do not care what the Philadelphia judges said in 1927!

Despite there being at least three recordings (by the Brodsky, Chilingirian and Tippett Quartets) of Andrzej Panufnik’s String Quartet no.3 ‘Paper Cuts’, I had not heard this work before, either. It was written in 1990 as a test-piece for the London International String Quartet Competition and received its premiere performance in London on 15 April 1991. The unusual title derives from the concept of the Polish art of ‘Paper-Cuts’ which aims to make symmetrical designs by cutting, gluing, tearing and punching paper to make attractive patterns for a variety of decorative items for the house. Panufnik described them as displaying ‘magical abstract beauty and naďve charm.'

The quartet is composed in five movements and the work progresses as an arch form. Each movement majors on a technical aspect of quartet playing, including volume control, rhythmic flexibility, pizzicato, vibrato and precision in ‘prestissimo’ playing, so really this work can be conceived of as five ‘studies.’ No movement or section lasts for more than three minutes. The music can sometimes be a little tentative, as if reflecting the fragility of some of the papercuts. The work opens quietly and builds up to a vigorous climax in the fourth movement ‘prestissimo possibile’. The final movement is heart-breaking in is gentle adagio and may well reflect the fact that the composer was ill and close to death - it was one of the Panufnik’s last works. It is a remarkably interesting string quartet, despite being intended as a test piece.

It is several years since I heard Krzysztof Penderecki’s String Quartets no.1 and no.2. Both, if I recall correctly, were at the cutting edge of the then avant-garde movement and were composed before Penderecki turned away from the experimental and faced towards tonality and a more traditional, neo-Romantic idiom.

The String Quartet no.3, subtitled ‘Leaves from an Unwritten Diary’, was composed in 2008 and premiered by the Shanghai Quartet in Warsaw the same year. The theme of this work is clearly that of looking back on life’s journey. The quartet is in a single movement but divided up into contrasting lively and relaxed episodes: the liner notes state that there are fifteen in all. These present a variety of the composer’s stylistic expressions, without ever wholly returning to his earlier avant-garde period. It is a really cool balance between ironic and elegiac moods brought about by a rapid presentation of musical transformations, almost by sleight of hand.

In this music we perceive a certain sadness and reflective temper, which is a characteristic of looking back at an old diary. That is not to say there are no vivacious or energetic moments in this quartet. One highlight is the heart-felt ‘nocturne’ which is both harmonically and melodically rich. There are allusions to an old Gypsy waltz as well as Polish folk-music. The general temper of the music looks back as far as Mozart and Haydn with a definite nod to Bartók. It is a richly satisfying work which repays several hearings.

The playing by the Ătma Quartet is remarkable, as befits these three remarkable Polish string quartets. The liner notes are printed in Polish and English and give a detailed understanding of each work as well as information about the ensemble. The sound is well-balanced and ideally reflects the complex nature and technical achievements of these works. The CD duration is a wee bit on the short side: I am sure they could have ‘squeezed in’ another piece.

This is a great CD that makes a splendid introduction to ‘modern’ Polish chamber music.
John France

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