Those who have been hankering for a similar musical experience to Górecki’s early-seventies masterpiece (but only recorded in the 1990s) Symphony of Sorrowful Songs (No. 3) will also be pleasantly surprised to find that this new “old” work (it was finished in 1995, but the composer, for unknown reasons, delayed its release), also a No. 3—for his quartets—touches many of those same emotional heartstrings the symphony so tightly tugged. Indeed, Górecki’s instrumental output has been somewhat vacant since his “Kleines Requiem für eine Polka” graced the catalogs in 1993.
The Kronos Quartet can take the kudos for pushing the composer to finally let his creation out of the laboratory, as indeed they can for making his first two quartets, Already it is Dusk, and Quasi una fantasia, available via Nonesuch recordings. David Harrington, leader of the vaunted quartet, wrote a personal letter to Górecki citing the works benevolent tone and penetrating look into the human condition: “…for me, one of the most lyrical, poignant and far-reaching works ever written for string quartet that I am aware of. This music consoles as it faces, unflinchingly, the deepest aspects of life. It is music so personal that in its performance one feels the audience listening in to one’s very own soul and life”. Personal, indeed. And there is no doubt that this opus retains a similar power that the aforementioned symphony also possessed. Whether or not the string quartet can push this sort of mammoth program across the same way as an orchestra remains to be seen. I suggest that it probably cannot, and in the long run will not have the sort of unparalleled popular triumph that the symphony did, but that does not make it any less a work of art.
In many ways the quartet is more intimate in addressing these personal, unstated questions of the whither, whence, and wherefores of life. While the symphony painted the letters writ large on a gigantic canvas, and had the added advantage of the human touch with a soprano soloist, it is left to the quartet sans voice to explain the inspiration that Górecki got from Russian writer Velimir Khlebnikov (1885-1922) when he penned the words:
When horses die, they breathe,
When grasses die, they wither,
When suns die, they go out,
When people die, they sing songs.
Górecki changes the last line to “songs are sung”, and never meant for any sort of programmatic theme to be taken from the poem, using it more as a mood-setting device than anything else. And it must be admitted that the poem is very good at establishing a mood, sort of an analogy to the biblical “A time to live, a time to die…”. As poetry I think it fairly trivial, but surely that is not the point here.
The melody that sets the opening for this work will make numerous appearances late on, and the work is inundated with the native folk traditions that mean so much to the composer. The short third movement is the only fast movement in the five-movement work, setting a brief repose among the slow expressiveness of the others. The last two flower into the patented Górecki patterns of bi-tonality and simple triadic utterances that make for such affected and affecting listening. Each listener will have a different opinion as to what this work is really saying, and that is probably just as the composer intended.
The Kronos plays up to standard, and the sound nicely captures the tonal qualities of the group—perhaps the most known quantity of any string quartet playing today, lyrical, sharp-edged, and razor-like precision. It’s nice to have Górecki back in a substantial way, and if you like Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, you will have to have the nearest thing to a sequel that he has yet composed.
— Steven Ritter