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Henryk Mikolaj GÓRECKI (1933-2010)
Sonata for 2 Violins, Op.10 (1957) [17:35]
String Quartet No.3, Op.67, Pieśni Śpiewają ‘...songs are sung’ (1995/pub. 2005) [56:57]
John Mills (violin), Jeremy Isaac (violin)
Tippett Quartet
rec. 27 September 2018, St Martin’s Church, East Woodhay, Hampshire, and 20 February 2018, St Paul’s Church, New Southgate, London
NAXOS 8.574110 [74:40]

This is Volume 2 of Naxos’ Górecki chamber music project. Volume 1, released in 2019, contains the first two string quartets and Genesis I: Elementi (8.573919). Michael Wilkinson thought that recording, performed as on the new release by the Tippett Quartet, represented a major contribution to twentieth-century music – review. He did, however, remind us of recordings by the dedicatees of the string quartets, the Kronos Quartet (Nonesuch, download only) and of the Hyperion recording of all three quartets (CDA67812 – review review). I thought the Royal Quartet on that Hyperion 2-CD set (priced as for one CD) played as if the music had been in their blood for decades – DL Roundup April 2011/2 – and that has to be my benchmark for all three quartets. It can be obtained as a lossless download with pdf booklet for £8.99, making it a better bargain even than the two Naxos recordings. The CDs are no longer available from dealers, but can be obtained from the Hyperion Archive Service – find both options at hyperion-records.co.uk.

My other benchmark comes from the Dafô Quartet on Dux 1302, rather short value at premium price (around £14.50) with just the quartet on the CD, but another very fine performance – review.

String Quartet No.3 has much in common with the iconic Third Symphony which went viral some years ago – review of recent recording from ABC1. Though more than thiry years separate the inception of the two works, it’s perhaps no coincidence that both have the word ‘songs’ in the title, in this case a quotation from a Russian poem ‘when people die, they sing songs’, though that’s just a creative starting point for the work.

Like the Third Symphony, the quartet begins in a mournful tone and ends in a more cheerful manner, perhaps because the third movement was composed on Górecki’s birthday, St Nicholas’ Day, when children traditionally receive their presents – or forfeits – in Poland, as in much of northern Europe. Even in the closing movements, however, there’s a sense of tranquil cheerfulness, rather than any outburst of joy.

The Dafô Quartet tend to take the music faster than the Tippett and the Royal Quartets, yet, paradoxically, I found plenty of tranquillity in their performance. On the whole, however, I preferred the Royal Quartet, not just because it offers better value. As between the Royal Quartet and the new Tippett Quartet recording, like Michael Wilkinson in reviewing the earlier Naxos release, I find myself liking both. Perhaps the Tippetts’ slightly more relaxed approach to the final two movements will sway the balance for some listeners, but it’s the coupling that is the real deciding factor.

The Sonata for two violins is an early work in Górecki’s uncompromising avant-garde style. If you thought of all his music as being like the Third Symphony, you may find the sonata tough going. It is, however, worth persevering, even for an old stick-in-the-mud like myself. There are only two other current recordings, on Challenge Classics CC72807, with Prokofiev and Ysayë, and Dux 0398, on a download-only album of Polish duos.

Which recording of the Third Quartet should you choose? If you must have CD, the Hyperion set is no longer good value, priced as two discs from the Archive Service. The two Naxos CDs sell for around £7.50 each, enshrine equally fine performances, and give you the duo sonata as well. The Dux recording, though also well performed, is expensive and short value.

Those prepared to download, however, will find the choice less clear-cut. The Dux download is still the poorest value, at around £10, but the Hyperion is excellent value at £8.99 and comes complete with the informative booklet. The two Naxos albums can be obtained for less than £5 each as lossless downloads – less still if you are happy with mp3 – and they too come with fine sets of notes. The choice is yours.

1 Ignore the link to emusic.com; ABC is one of the many labels to have disappeared there to the extent that it’s hardly worth bothering for fans of classical music and jazz.

Brian Wilson



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