• Górecki: String Quartets (EMI, 2008)


Henryk Mikołaj Górecki: String Quartets
EMI Music Poland 50999 2 36313 2 8 (2008)
Silesian String Quartet

• String Quartet 1 ‘Already It Is Dusk’ (1988)
• String Quartet 2 ‘Quasi una fantasia’ (1991)
• String Quartet 3 ‘… songs are sung’ (1995/2005)



The history of the twentieth-century string quartet revolves around a few key figures and works, such as the six quartets by Bartók and the fifteen by Shostakovich, alongside isolated but canonic examples by a multitude of other composers.  Polish composers have also been significant contibutors, to name but the two quartets each by Karol Szymanowski (1882-1937) and Krzysztof Penderecki (b.1933), and the single quartet by Witold Lutosławski (1913-94).  Deserving of a higher profile outside Poland are the seven quartets by Grażyna Bacewicz (1909-69) and the twelve so far by Krzysztof Meyer (b.1943).  Younger composers, such as Eugeniusz Knapik (b.1951) and Aleksander Lasoń (b.1951), have also added significantly to the repertoire.  Indeed, the example of Knapik and Lasoń may have been a contributory factor in the move of their teacher, Henryk Mikołaj Górecki, into chamber music in the mid-1980s.

Górecki (b.1933) is primarily known for his explosive avant-garde pieces of the late 1950s and early 1960s and for his move towards modality in large-scale vocal-instrumental works in the 1970s (Symphonies 2 and 3, Beatus vir).  The early 1980s were difficult times in Poland and for Górecki these problems were exacerbated by poor health.  His turn to the more intimate genres of chamber music was bound up with these circumstances.  Górecki began with the piano trio Recitatives and Ariosos (1984-86), which was followed by three string quartets which have placed him firmly in the front rank of contemporary composers of the genre.

String Quartet 1

The First String Quartet (1988) is titled ‘Already it is Dusk’, after a motet by the Polish Renaissance composer, Wacław z Szamotuł.  Górecki had used the tenor line from this motet in two earlier pieces; here it forms the material for the chromatic and interrupted canonic textures which appear four times at the start, heralded and separated by strident, folk-derived fifths.  These two ideas bring Górecki’s love of Poland’s secular and sacred traditions into close focus.  The ensuing Allegro relishes the rhythmic vigour of secular folk dance, with repeated phrases and pairing of the instruments into duets.  At the climax of this one-movement work, the music discards any melodic interest and concentrates on an accompanimental, chordal texture con massima passione – con massima espressione before returning to the canonic idea from the first section.  This eventually dissolves into a more mellow idiom which the composer marks ‘ARMONIA’.

String Quartet 2

Górecki’s Second Quartet followed three years later, in 1991, just before Dawn Upshaw’s recording of the Third Symphony became a worldwide phenomenon.  This quartet, too, has a title – ‘Quasi una fantasia’ – which evokes Beethovenian parallels.  It is worth noting that Beethoven’s music also underlies Recitatives and Ariosos and that Górecki once said that ‘It is thanks to Beethoven that I was able to write these [first two] quartets’.   Beethoven is indeed a strong presence in the Second Quartet, not only in its developed structure but also in a sequence of three ‘Beethovenian chords’, as Górecki himself called them.  These chords, together and separately, appear at important moments in the work, initially at the close of the first movement.

This opening movement, with its repeated cello E naturals and plangent dissonances, presents a characteristic texture.  A curious feature is the first of two citations, now tranquillo, of the accompanimental chordal texture from the First Quartet.  This passage also appears towards the end of the second movement, which is otherwise a robust dance, more brutal than its predecessor in the First Quartet.  Both of these movements leave their arguments in suspension, and this gives particular weight to the Arioso.  Its diatonic underpinning cannot mask the highly dissonant melodic idiom of the two violins.  It is hard to believe that some of this material is distantly related to Chopin’s posthumous Polonaise in D minor.  But Górecki’s assertion that it is points up a significant change in his approach to earlier music.  Whereas in the 1970s he incorporated early Polish music or references to Chopin or Beethoven more or less unaltered, in the manner of revered icons, in his chamber music from the mid-1980s onwards he also used this borrowed material developmentally.

The Finale of the Second Quartet returns to exhilarating dance rhythms in which, like in the First Quartet, the players are paired off.  Górecki has commented that this movement, while providing the work’s culmination, is also self-standing.  Yet the coda integrates it with the rest of the quartet by its recollection of the very opening.  And the element of patchwork fantasia is highlighted by the totally unexpected, and some might say puzzling reference in the coda to the carol Stille Nacht.

String Quartet 3

The Third Quartet was commissioned, like its predecessors, by the Kronos Quartet.  Although it was effectively completed just three years after the Second, in 1994, it was not released for performance until 2005.  Its title ‘… songs are sung’ is derived from the closing line of a quatrain by the Russian poet Velimir Khlebnikov, ‘When people die, they sing songs’.  The composer insists, however, that the music itself is independent of programmatic associations.

Nevertheless, the overriding atmosphere is one of melancholy and introspection, epitomised by the trudging rhythm at the outset and the diatonic sequence at the start of the second movement (shades of ‘Beethovenian chords’).  The Third Quartet’s use of recurrent and interwoven ideas, cross-fertilising its five movements, suggests the elusiveness of memory.  Here, though, there is little in the way of iconic glances backwards, with just a brief quotation in the central Allegro from the first movement of Szymanowski’s Second Quartet.  Górecki’s identification with his compatriot is just as strong as his roots in Polish folk music, Chopin or Beethoven, so this citing, for all its brevity, is still powerful.  It comes in the middle of the only fast movement, which falters moments later, thrusting expectations forwards into the fourth movement.

Yet this Deciso-Espressivo seems anything but decisive (it begins by recalling key ideas from the third movement, including the Szymanowski quotation) until it ushers in a new melodic idea with repeated G major chords (Tranquillo-Dolce-Cantabile. MORBIDO).  As in the earlier quartets, Górecki relishes the expressive disjunction between the instrumental pairings.  The finale resolves some of the tensions by continuing the process of recall (the fantasia principle is even stronger here than in the Second Quartet) and, more importantly, by finding comfort in diatonic harmony.  Thirds have played a crucial role, melodically and harmonically, during the course of the work, and its opening Eb-Gb harmony finds ultimate resolution in the closing Eb major triad.  The expressive restlessness has found repose.

© 2008 Adrian Thomas


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