Classical CD Reviews

KAROL SZYMANOWSKI: String Quartets Nos. 1 & 2; ROZYCKI: Quartet in D minor – Royal String Quartet – Hyperion

Stellar performances of three fascinating Polish string quartets.

Published on July 10, 2009

KAROL SZYMANOWSKI: String Quartets Nos. 1 & 2; ROZYCKI: Quartet in D minor – Royal String Quartet – Hyperion

KAROL SZYMANOWSKI: String Quartets Nos. 1 & 2; ROZYCKI: Quartet in D minor – Royal String Quartet – Hyperion CDA67684, 70:20 ***** [Distr. by Harmonia mundi]:

This splendidly performed recording features the two string quartets of Polish composer Karol Szymanowski (1882-1937) and the sole quartet written by his compatriot Ludomir Rozycki (1884-1953). Although the two composers were contemporaries there is a wide stylistic gulf between them. Rozycki’s String Quartet in D minor Op. 49 looks backward to the previous century. Its musical syntax is that of the late-Romantic period of the recent past. It is written in a style that owes little to the French and Russian composers whose voices were so important in the rise of nationalism in music. Syzmanowski’s two quartets, on the other hand, are fully representative of the artistic ferment and radical experimentation that roiled music in the early 20th Century.

The Rozycki quartet was written in 1915-16, scant months before Syzmanowski’s first quartet. With its sumptuous harmony and rich texture it sounds as if it might have been written 30 years earlier. The quartet flaunts a late-Romantic musical language by roaming between the keys of D minor and D major, by the intensity of its chromatic idiom and by the inevitable return to a firm tonality after several musical flights depicting expressive yearning. The spirit of Tristan is never far from the composer’s outpouring of melody. That spirit serves as an anchor to the quartet’s frequent inward voyages. We hear music that expresses the pent-up tribulations of the heart, the disquieting twilight that frames our dimly perceived desires and the imperfect union between the solitary soul and this strange world in which it struggles.

The second movement has passages that are particularly dark and spare, a bleak landscape in which despair gnaws at the edges of the music. These troubled moments are eased by recurring passages that are sensuously lyrical and by the buoyant, thrilling third movement. These are just some of the creative aspects of the quartet that help to make it such a wonderful discovery.

The Royal String Quartet plays the piece with deep musical understanding and utterly appropriate style. They quickly establish a dramatic dialog between themselves and give this music theatricality and an urgency that is impressive. One inevitably wonders why this string quartet has not been more frequently performed.

Karol Szymanowski’s two quartets are separated by ten years of continuous personal musical growth, the advent of modernism with its explosive experimentation and the dissolution of a universal "Classical Music". The String Quartet No.1 in C major Op.37 was written in 1917 as World War One raged and the Russian Revolution began. It is a stark and austere piece that is influenced by Debussy and Ravel. Szymanowski relishes the sheer surface sheen of their music. Heavily chromatic, the quartet fractures the music’s syntax into terse yet lyrical phrases. There are rapid swings in mood and tempo and suggestions of a proto-Bartokian polytonality in the ferocious outer movements. An emphasis on contrapuntal textures and fugue provide an irresistible motoric drive in the faster sections. Chiascuro shadings of light and dark harmony in the slower movements are poignant and profound. Szymanowksi’s use of string techniques like pizzicato and sul ponticello (bowing close to the bridge) in both quartets are strongly suggestive of Bartok’s masterful set of six string quartets. The great Hungarian’s quartets are an obvious and beneficial influence.

Szymanowski’s String Quartet No. 2 Op.56 composed in 1927 has that surface perfection and delicacy of touch that instantly recalls Ravel. Yet by this time in his career Szymanowski had developed a definitive personal style. In his music we now hear less striving for uniqueness of utterance and more of the assured technique of a master who is unafraid of revealing his influences. We are bathed in an allusive and mysterious atmosphere that serves to color this superb quartet. The folkloric elements that provide its propulsive forward thrust and the brilliant use of technical gestures such as sul ponticello, glissandi, pizzicato and strong ostinato suggest Bartok and the young Stravinsky. Yet the music always sounds like Szymanowski’s own unique voice.

The Royal String Quartet could hardly present this music better than they do on this splendid disc. Their playing radiates authenticity evoking an older more personal era in chamber music performance. One is tempted to call it a true central European style that rejects the homogeneity of much current musical interpretation. They are certainly up to the music’s many challenges and they provide these important quartets with the gravitas that is needed to make them blossom.

Hyperion’s sound is warm, rich and full. All of the instruments have an immediacy and presence that insures that these quartets are a pleasure to listen to.

– – Mike Birman

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