Classical CD Reviews

PENDERECKI: String Quartet No. 1; String Quartet No. 2; String Quartet No. 3 ‘Leaves of an unwritten diary’; LUTOSLAWSKI: String Quartet – Royal String Q. – Hyperion

These are riveting performances in brilliant sound of 20th and 21st century string quartets from two Polish masters.

Published on April 24, 2013

PENDERECKI: String Quartet No. 1; String Quartet No. 2; String Quartet No. 3 ‘Leaves of an unwritten diary’; LUTOSLAWSKI: String Quartet – Royal String Quartet – Hyperion CDA67943, 59:24 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] *****:

This is an exceptionally-performed and recorded disc of string quartets of two composers who led the avante-garde movement in Poland in the mid-twentieth century, and contributed significantly to the European development of new musical sonorities. Krzysztof  Penderecki (b. 1933) and Witold Lutoslawski (1913 – 1994) have composed large scale forms (orchestral and choral) that connected avante-garde sound effects with tradition. With Penderecki, he merged the modern with religious effect and drama; with Lutoslawski, he connected folk elements, neoclassicism, serial and controlled aleotorism. Both composers added tonality to their arsenal of modern techniques late in their career, providing a synthesis of experimentation and lyricism that is characteristic of much of modern classical string quartet music today.

For over 50 years, Krzysztof Penderecki has been at the forefront of twentieth century avante-garde musical development.  In the 1960s he became a leading experimental composer when he penned the Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima (1960), a terrifying musical evocation of that horrible event. He called this language sonorism, and it included percussive sounds with stringed instruments, defined pitches in dense clusters, microtones and glissandi. By the mid 1960s he began to integrate his compositional techniques with more traditional forms. In the St. Luke Passion, arguably his masterpiece, Penderecki chose a religious event centuries old, and expressed it in a musical language unique to our century. Although he denies writing to please an audience, (“I never think about writing for others, but I have always had an audience”) his musical journey has included exploring Romanticism (Violin Concerto No. 1) within the context of his modern style, and his works have been increasingly expressive and sophisticated.

The String Quartet No. 1 (1960) is a great example of Penderecki’s innovative musical sound world. The percussive performance techniques – playing between the bridge of the violin and the tailpiece; hitting strings with the wooden back of the bow (col legno), striking strings with the palm of the hand, scratching, drumming, and others, create a sound world that is powerful and void of any melody in its seven minute length. In  String Quartet No. 2 (1968), homogenous ensemble textures use quarter-tones and guitar-like glissando strumming to create a world that resembles sounds from outer space. At 5:17 there’s a sequence that sounds similar to Janet Leigh’s stabbing scene in Bernard Hermann’s score of Hitchcock’s movie Psycho (1960). He also uses ‘airplane’ glissandos introduced in Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima. It’s easy to dismiss these quartets as unmusical experimental uses of instrumental techniques, but there’s no denying their power and dramatic impact. The performance of the Royal Quartet is astounding and the sound adds punch to this music.

When I heard Penderecki speak at the 1998 Oregon Bach Festival, he mentioned that another string quartet was in his compositional plans. It took him a decade, but the String Quartet No. 3 finally arrived in 2008. It’s a brilliant work, surely one of the great quartets written in the 21st century. In it he synthesizes the brilliant avante-garde techniques of fifty years ago with the spiritual tonality of his music in the last decades. Opening with a bitingly sad viola melody, he transitions into a dramatic and acerbic scherzo that is stunning. Throughout this 19-minute work he transitions back and forth between melodies – a poignant, eerie and beautiful nocturne – a demonic waltz – and finally a gypsy melody that recalls one Penderecki’s father played on his violin. The atmosphere is tart, late fin de siècle Europe – the anger of a degenerate age, yet a beauty, although sad, that speaks to hope for the future. This is a profoundly moving and brilliantly scored string quartet. I can’t say enough for the Royal Quartet’s performance –phenomenal execution and an interpretation of great emotional depth.

Around 1960, Witold Lutoslawski (1913-1994), inspired by a concert of John Cage’s music, entered a new stylistic compositional phase, which he called controlled aleatorism. “It employs the element of chance for the purpose of rhythmic and expressive enrichment of the music without limiting in the least the full ability of the composer to determine the definitive form of the work,” the composer writes. Lutoslawski determines the overall architectural structure (often the players play separately at the beginning and together at the end) but the players determine how the notes are played. Within sections, the tempo, number of repeats, length of the notes and silences, are the player’s individual decisions. However, the composer provides specific instructions to the players. For example, at one point the viola is told to continue playing until the cello starts. At another point, the cello can start only after the second violin is finished. Lutoslawski compares it to a Calder mobile, where the performers constantly change how they play in response to their colleagues. The result is that no one performance is the same.

Listening to this quartet reminded me of a time in the 1960s when Nonesuch records released an LP of Morton Subotnik’s electronic score entitled Silver Apples of the Moon. I shut the lights off, played this record and discovered the wonder of sounds I’d never heard played on my new stereo. In the first part of his String Quartet, Introductory, Lutoslawski starts with a ‘fragmented monologue’ of sounds from the violin, interrupted by the cello. The pattern of interruptions creates a sense of unexpected drama – the listener never knows what’s coming next. There’s a sense of anxiety and incompletion that leads to Main, consisting of clusters of pizzacatos, clusters of glissandos, etc. – an assault of unexpected but fascinating sounds, ending with quiet, eerie, almost lyrical glissandos. Listening through my headphones to this score was like bathing in some of the most strange and enticing sounds ever composed for a string quartet. The sense of discovery is nothing less than thrilling.

This is one of the great chamber music discs of the 21st century – the Royal Quartet is simply astounding, the sound is stunning and the music here is unbelievably creative. Those who love the string quartet – don’t even think of hesitating!

—Robert Moon






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