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Kryzysztof PENDERECKI (1933-2020)
Complete Music for String Quartet & String Trio
String Quartet No 1 (1960) [6.09]
String Quartet No 2 (1968) [8.02]
Der unterbrochene Gedanke (1988) [2.18]
String Trio (1990, rev. 1991) [13.12]
String Quartet No 3 ‘Leaves from an Unwritten Diary’ (2008) [16.46]
String Quartet No 4 (2016) [6.06]
Tippett Quartet
rec. 18-19 January 2020, St. John the Evangelist Church, Oxford, UK
NAXOS 8.574288 [52.58]

This release, of the complete Quartets and Trios is invaluable for understanding the mind of one of the great composers of the last 100 years. Its value is not only in the development of Penderecki from a very avant-garde figure to one who seemed outwardly more musically conventional in the last third of his life. It is clear from these works, which span his active career, that there was no mere settling into a comfortable conservatism, but that the spirit of adventure never faded, and that the apparent lack of overt avant-gardism was consistent with his youthful originality. Listening to the CD reveals as much continuity in a distinctive voice as any change.

I should confess a personal interest – I first became fascinated by Penderecki half a century or more ago, when the underestimated Maurice Handford championed his music with the Hallé orchestra – as I have followed his career closely indeed.

Much of Penderecki’s music has been for larger forces – the output for string quartet is slender in totality, but there is no lack of depth or intensity. The first two, each very brief, belong to the more overtly avant-garde phase of his career, when part of the impetus, as for other young Polish composers like Baird, was an element of protest against conformist Communist domination. But Penderecki had a particular interest, never lost, in the vertical dimension of a given sound, the sound of the moment, rather than the onward flow. He draws our attention to the moment, hence very distinctive sounds at the opening of the First Quartet (or again in the First Symphony of 1973). It is not the easiest piece to understand, despite its clarity in each moment, or the brevity of its single movement, but repeated listening reveals a striking beauty.

The Second Quartet has some affinities with Ligeti, though I think these can be overstated. The variety of moods in the single 8 minute Lento molto movement is remarkable, in terms of textures and dynamic development and moments of sardonic humour. The 40-year gap between this and the Third Quartet reveals the difference of styles. The single, expansive, Grave movement reveals – as the title suggests – much that is reflective and autobiographical. The emphasis is on the development of largely tonal themes with lengthy and very beautiful developments, notably before and after a lively central scherzo-like section. The final section is deeply affecting in its eloquence. This is a work to which I shall return often: it deserves to become a staple of the of the quartet repertoire. The Fourth Quartet, in two movements, the first a very brief andante prelude of restrained diction, the second a lively vivo with strong elements of folk music, is attractive if somewhat enigmatic – I longed for further development.

The other pieces on the disc have their own distinctive value. The tiny Der unterbrochene Gedanke (‘The Interrupted Thought’) from 1988 contains an extraordinary range of fleeting moods generating excitement before a swift but ambiguous subsidence to finish. In contrast with other works, the two linked movements of the largely tonal String Trio (1990/91), Allegro molto and Vivace, are lively and the piece overall is enjoyable and overwhelmingly sunny in mood.

Congratulations are in order for the poise and insight of the Tippett Quartet who meet the considerable technical and emotional demands with aplomb. It is hard to imagine better or more committed performances. Thanks are due also to Richard Whitehouse for his informative and concise notes, as well as to the engineers of a bright recording.

This is not to be missed.

Michael Wilkinson

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