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Krzysztof PENDERECKI (1933-2020)
String Quartet No 1 (1960) [6:43]
String Quartet No 2 (1968) [8:53]
Der Unterbrochene Gedanke (1988) [2:10]
Quartet for clarinet and string trio (1993) [14:54]
String Quartet No 3 ‘Leaves of an unwritten diary’ (2008) [17:14]
String Quartet No 4 (2016) [6:10]
Silesian String Quartet
Piotr Szymyślik (clarinet)
rec. 2012/21, Concert Hall of the Karol Szymanowski Academy of Music, Katowice, Poland.

Tim Rutherford-Johnson’s booklet notes for this recording begin by asking how Penderecki’s earlier avant-garde style relates to his later neo-romantic period, pointing out that “it is rare for a mature artist to change direction completely.” This is to a certain extent answered in a quote from the composer, relating to his 1993 Clarinet Quartet, “There have been times in my life when I would become interested in one type of music and then I would return to some other type. Recently, this mischievous goblin which has always been present somewhere in my music and my personality has calmed down, giving way to lyricism and concentration.” Perhaps in this way, one can easily reverse the question ‘why?’ to ‘why not?’

The first two string quartets are certainly full-on avant-garde, with String Quartet No 1 appearing “within the same white-hot creative period that birthed the orchestral works Anaklasis (1959), Fluorescences (1962), and the seminal Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima (1960).” Both the first and second quartets are representative of a style that breaks all of the conventions that typified string quartet writing since Haydn, exploring textures and sonorities beyond tonality and indeed beyond the instruments themselves. These extended techniques are given a modest cloth of conventionality in the ABA structure of String Quartet No 2, but both flung open the door to new avenues of expression that are still being explored by composers today.

Two decades on from the Second Quartet take us to Der Unterbrochene Gedanke, a miniature written in memory of Penderecki’s friend and publisher Arno Volk. With its more conventional playing techniques and questing structural narrative this at once seems like a potential movement from a larger work, while at the same time breaking us in for the composer’s more lyrical later period. The Clarinet Quartet was inspired by Schubert’s String Quintet in C minor, D 956, and it opens with those melancholy melodic shapes that to a certain extent characterise Penderecki’s music in his later decades, also hinting in this case at Shostakovich. This is a work in four movements but also conceived as an organic whole. There is contrast between the movements, but motifs recur and occur, being added to and incorporated as the work unfolds. The relatively easy going drama of the Scherzo second movement gives way to lighthearted good humour in the Serenade: Tempo di Valse third, but the emotional weight of the work rests on the final movement, Abschied, which is as long as the first three put together. This returns to the melancholy of the opening, with descending lines and sparse, sustained, lonely textures.

String Quartet No 3 is subtitled ‘Leaves from an Unwritten Diary’, and this can arguably indicate both an inner examination of the composer’s past work, but also extending into lived experiences that include music heard and absorbed into memory. At just over 17 minutes this is the longest piece here, but it has plenty to say over an unpredictable but eventful four sections. Structural cohesion is held in place through variation form, the second two sections being variations on the first two, recollections of previous material acting as their own play on memory and its distortions of past experience. This is a dramatic work in general, but with moments of sublime beauty like sunshine through stained glass, especially in the Tranquillo of the final section. The Fourth String Quartet returns to the brevity of the first, but with more of a Bartók feel in its urgent directness of expression and folk-music tinged final pages.

There is a certain amount of competition in this repertoire, including the Tippett Quartet’s Naxos recording (review), which has the 1990 String Trio instead of the Clarinet Quartet. This is very good, and it is intriguing to compare both recordings with regard to each quartet’s approach both to the avant-garde effects of the first two quartets and the expressive impact of the later works. The Silesian Quartet is more refined, but the Tippett Quartet is more heart-on-sleeve and has its own considerable impact. There is the Royal String Quartet on the Hyperion label (review) recorded before the Fourth Quartet has been written, and the Dux label of course has various high quality chamber music programmes including most of the quartets with the DAFÔ Quartet (review). The quality of performance and stunning recording for this release from the Silesian Quartet is however such that it can take on all of the competition, and for Penderecki’s complete string quartets it will be a hard act to beat.

Dominy Clements

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