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Henryk Mikolaj GÓRECKI (1933-2010)
Complete String Quartets
String Quartet No. 1, Op. 62 Already it is dusk [16:07]
String Quartet No. 2, Op. 64 Quasi una fantasia [32:18]
String Quartet No. 3, Op. 67 …songs are sung [56:49]
Quatuor Molinari
rec. 2019, Eglise Saint-Augustin, Mirabel, Québec, Canada
ATMA CLASSIQUE ACD22802 [2 CDs: 105:14]

When it comes to the music of Henryk Górecki, many people do not get past his Symphony No. 3 Op. 36 Symphony of Sorrowful Songs. That is a real shame. There is a lot of fine music to explore, not least his string three quartets. I know the Kronos Quartet’s ground-breaking recording of the first two quartets (Nonesuch 7559793192), and the Tippett Quartet’s disc of No. 3 (Naxos 8.574110), the recording of the month in May’s edition of the Gramophone Magazine. I remember being quite taken by the rhythmic intensity of the quartets, especially the Second, something which is also in evidence here.

All three quartets were composed for the Kronos Quartet, in 1988, 1991 and 1995. In the case of No. 3, it was not until Górecki had made several amendments that he allowed the work to receive its premiere in 2005. Each of the quartets remined the listener of the conflicting emotions to be found in Górecki’s music. Lyrical and melodic elements are set against the more dramatic pulsating passages. The struggle between light and dark is to be found in a lot of his music. The quartets have descriptive titles. Already it is dusk, the First Quartet, refers to the opening of a motet by the sixteenth century Polish composer Wacław z Szamotuł A Prayer for Children Going to Sleep. Górecki borrows aspects of the tenor melody and uses it near the opening of the Quartet. The work is cast in a single movement but clear and distinct sections can be discerned within its sixteen minutes.

Beethoven’s sonatas and quartets were an influence on Górecki, which he freely admitted. This can be seen in the title of the Second Quartet, Quasi una fantasia. This quartet is in four movements, and is twice as long as the First. It has always been my favourite. The first movement begins very quietly. The cello and viola offer an almost meditative atmosphere. The entry of the violins heralds a sort of drone from the second section of the First Quartet. By contrast, the pulsating second movement adds a sense of rhythmic energy to the work, with pairs of instruments competing for supremacy. This is followed by a quiet section. It gradually dies away and runs into the third movement which gradually builds the tension, before it too slows down and becomes gradually quieter again. This movement uses a form of dissonance. A line is played in tandem with the same line an octave higher. At times, this is almost ghostly or even spooky, although this leads to all the instruments playing together and thus leading to a more conventional and calm conclusion to the movement. The final movement returns is again faster, more rhythmic, although this time it is more influenced by ideas of Polish Folk music. This movement, according to Vincent Collard, who bases his notes on those of Adrian Thomas (Hyperion CDA67812), “is the most developed of the four movements, and the one most worthy of the work’s title”. The work concludes with something of a shock. As it becomes quieter and calmer, the Christmas carol Silent night appears and finally gives way to a reference to the opening bars of the quartet.

The culmination of Górecki’s chamber music, the Third Quartet had a ten-year gestation period. This work’s title …songs are sung comes from a paraphrase of lines from the poem by Russian poet Velimir Khlebnikov. The composer states that this was only a creative starting point, and there are no programmatic references. The slow brooding opening sets the scene well for what is to follow. The quartet consists of slow music, except the third movement Allegro and part of the following Deciso movement, which becomes more animated. The opening movement builds on its quiet contemplative beginning with the brooding thematic material. It gradually builds tension into the piece as it gets louder and stronger. The second movement begins at an even slower tempo. The melody is played over sustained slow cords, which at times get interwoven and so create quite a meditative feel. The third movement is by far the shortest of the five. Its quick pace reminds me at times of minimalism, although there is a short reference to Szymanowski’s Second Quartet. The fourth movement Deciso, espressivo ma ben tenuto is anything but decisive. It starts with themes from the preceding movement, although played more slowly, before eventually developing new material. The familiar concept of doubling the melodic line in employed before the piece settles on the material of the opening section of the movement. The final movement Largo, tranquillo is at nearly fourteen minutes the longest, and nearly three times as long as the short central movement. It begins with a cello melody. The other instruments gradually join in to create a harmonic whole that shows Górecki experimenting with the harmonics and dynamics. He introduces material first heard in the opening movement, giving the work a cyclical feel, before going on to imply themes, without actually stating them, of earlier pieces.

This is an interesting and rewarding series of string quartets, a must for all devotees of the genre. The strong, passionate performances by the Quatuor Molinari help to put these three works firmly in the context of Henryk Górecki’s list of compositions. The performance shows great control, especially in the Third Quartet, with its sustained slow music. In the Second, with its more rhythmic intensity, they show a great sense of ensemble and understanding. The recorded sound, very crisp and clear, helps to bring out the nuanced and atmospheric music of the works. The notes are also quite good.

Stuart Sillitoe

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