• Górecki: String Quartets (Hyperion, 2011)


Górecki: The Three String Quartets
Hyperion CDA 67812 (2011)
Royal String Quartet

• Already it is Dusk ‘String Quartet no.1’ (1988)
• Quasi una fantasia ‘String Quartet no.2’ (1991)
• … songs are sung ‘String Quartet no.3’ (1995/2005)



Górecki once described himself as an odludek (recluse).  This image of the composer as someone deep in his own thoughts and concerns was reinforced in the 1990s by the phenomenal global success of his Symphony no.3 – Symphony of Sorrowful Songs (1976).  Yet both this image and the symphony, powerful though they are, represent only part of the man and his music.  Certainly he was contemplative, but he was also a composer with a great sense of fun – his Harpsichord Concerto (1980) contradicts the impression that he wrote only long, slow music by having just two movements, both fast, lasting under ten minutes in all.  And in the Concerto-Cantata for flute and orchestra (1992) and the instrumental Little Requiem for a Polka (1993) he incorporated music which seems to have come from the circus.

More importantly, he consistently maintained his radical streak, first evidenced by the avant-garde student works of the late 1950s and early 1960s, such as the Sonata for two violins (1957), the Symphony no.1 (1959), Scontri for orchestra (1960), and Genesis I: Elementi for string trio (1962).  The Third Symphony, with its solo soprano, three sustained movements and quotations from Polish hymns, Beethoven and Chopin, was also part of this radicality.  So too are the three string quartets on this recording.

Górecki’s interest in chamber music, which culminated in his string quartets (1988, 1991 and 1995/2005), began in his student days.  It resurfaced in his Little Music series (1967-70), but was superseded in the 1970s and early 1980s by his focus on sacred and choral music.  During a bout of ill health in the 1980s he was commissioned to write a piano trio, Recitatives and Ariosos: Lerchenmusik (1984-6).  This was soon followed by a request from the Kronos Quartet of San Francisco, who commissioned and premiered all three of the quartets on this recording (it appears that a fourth quartet was left incomplete at the time of his death).  These chamber pieces signalled a new creative phase in his music.

Already It Is Dusk

Each of the quartets has a descriptive title.  The first, Already it is Dusk, is a variant of the opening line of a motet – A prayer for children going to sleep – by the Polish Renaissance composer, Wacław z Szamotuł (c.1524-c.1560):

Already dusk is falling, night closes in,
Let us beseech the Lord for help,
To be our guardian,
To protect us from wicked devils,
Who especially under cover of darkness
Profit from their cunning.

The thread of childhood runs through many of Górecki’s pieces (often by means of the lullaby texture of alternating chords), and it is not far-fetched here to see the warning about evil as a metaphor for life in then-communist Poland.  The real significance, however, is musical: Górecki took the tenor line from this motet and used it as the thematic material presented shortly after the start of the quartet.

Already it is Dusk begins with a resonant open fifth, symbolising the composer’s absorption in Polish folk music.  This is contrasted with a strained canonic texture using the tenor line from the motet in a combination of inverted and retrograde forms (this is a throwback to Górecki’s twelve-note interests).  The intercutting of these two contrasting ideas, one vertical, the other linear, constitutes the first section of the quartet.  At each appearance the fifths become more strident and confrontational, while the canon is lengthened and seems more introspective.  Such stark contrasts had been at the heart of Górecki’s compositional thinking in the 1950s and 1960s and re-emerged in his chamber music in the mid-1980s.

The main section reinvents the confrontational dissonance as a vigorous backdrop to a folk-derived theme, with its repetitions, developing melodic profile, and vigorous duetting between the violin and viola-cello pairings.  Out of this emerges a homophonic texture whose playing instructions (Martellando-Tempestuoso, followed by con massima passione – con massima espressione) are typical of Górecki’s desire to exploit extreme dynamic ranges.  This chordal section seems to create the idea of a folk drone without the melody.  At its climax the opening perfect fifth reappears and ushers in a reminder of the canonic idea, before a sequence of major triads (in second inversion not root position, so implying an element of incompletion) quietly concludes the quartet (ma ben sonore – ARMONIA).

Quasi una fantasia

Górecki’s String Quartet no.2 is entitled Quasi una fantasia.  This invokes Beethovenian parallels, not least because Górecki himself acknowledged at the time that Beethoven’s piano sonatas and string quartets had provided the impetus for his first two quartets.  If further evidence of Górecki’s indebtedness to Beethoven were needed, his Recitatives and Ariosos had incorporated references to the opening of Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto.  In the Second Quartet, there is a sequence of three major triads (echoes of the idea at the end of the First Quartet) which forms structural pillars across all four movements.  He called these chords ‘Beethovenian’.

A trudging cello E natural underpins much of the opening movement, whose main feature is the weeping semitone of the viola.  When all four instruments come into play, Górecki recalls the chordal drone theme from the First Quartet, this time marked Tranquillo (it also appears towards the end of the second movement).  This cross-reference, like the recurring Beethovenian chords, reinforces the notion that, despite the four distinct movements, the Second Quartet is modelled on the freer associative process of the fantasia.

The first movement ends with the first appearance of the Beethovenian chords, which are followed immediately by the rumbustious folk-dance of the second movement.  This is both more extended and more vigorous than its counterpart in the First Quartet, although the idea of duetting pairs of instruments is still the mainstay.  The third movement, Arioso, pairs diatonic chordal accompaniment with a specific type of melodic dissonance, implied in the First Quartet, where one line is paralleled in rhythmic unison with another that is an octave and a semitone away.  The powerfully unsettling dissonance of the minor ninth is a feature of much of Górecki’s instrumental music since the 1980s.  The movement ends, however, in a generally consonant frame of mind.

The finale, a fast-moving, even furious sequence of folk-influenced ideas, is the most developed movement, and in itself is worthy of the work’s title.  Its greatest surprise comes at the end, when a skeletal version of the opening phrases of the world’s best-known carol emerges over one of the Beethovenian chords, Lento, tranquillissimo.  It is an intriguing and unexplained diversion.  The quartet ends, as did its predecessor, with a reference to its opening bars.

… songs are sung

Górecki always worked at his own pace.  Before he came to the notice of a worldwide audience in the early 1990s, this went unremarked, and he was comfortable in taking his time.  But the history of the String Quartet no.3 suggests that his pattern of work was disrupted by the extraordinary response to the Third Symphony and the demands placed on his time to travel and meet audiences.  While the draft of the Third Quartet was composed quickly and completed in January 1995, it was not premiered for another ten years.  At the back of the manuscript, Górecki wrote: ‘Only now, in 2005, have I amended it here and there and written it out neatly.  In the intervening years there were several dates set for the work’s premiere by the Kronos Quartet … but I continued to hold back from releasing it to the world.  I don’t know why.’  This delay might imply a new and wholly unexpected lack of confidence, yet he need not have worried.  The Third Quartet has been hailed as a masterly successor to the first two quartets.

String Quartet no.3 is enigmatically titled … songs are sung.  This, like the title of the First Quartet, is a variant on a phrase from an existing text, this time a poem by the early twentieth-century Russian writer Velimir Khlebnikov (1885-1922):

When horses die, they breathe,
When grasses die, they wither,
When suns die, they go out,
When people die, they sing songs.

Unlike his recourse to the Renaissance motet in the First Quartet, Górecki’s reference here has no musical implications and, as he emphatically stated, no programmatic resonances.  For him, it was just a creative starting point.  There is no denying, however, the work’s pervasive introspection and tone of lamentation.

The first of the five movements recalls the opening of the Second Quartet, although instead of a solitary repeated pedal note there is the dark sound of a low minor third.  What gradually becomes apparent is the enlarged timescale of Górecki’s repetitions and developments, and this brings to mind the expansive scale not only of the Symphony no.3 but also of works such as the cantata for Pope John Paul II, Beatus vir (1979), and the Miserere for a cappella choir (1981).  The movement ends with three sustained chords, not this time diatonic, but an open fifth topped by a note a minor ninth above the bass.  Once again, he has used a familiar device, though transformed from the strident versions in the previous quartets into something more plangent.

The sombre mood carries over into the second movement, its sustained low chords supporting melodic ideas that strive upwards in thirds.  The short central section is somewhat brighter in tone, as the music emphasises major triads as well as revealing the folk roots of the movement’s initial melodic material.

With the third movement, the only fast one in the Third Quartet, Górecki regains his jovial self in a manner familiar from the earlier quartets.  Perhaps this was because he began it on his sixty-first birthday, which coincidentally is the day in Poland when children are given presents to celebrate St Nicholas.  It becomes apparent that the main material is thematically related to the previous movements.  This integration becomes ever more significant as the work progresses, underlining the fantasia elements in Górecki’s compositional thinking in his chamber music.

The distinctive feature here (although not new when considering his creative processes over the years) is the unexpected contrast provided by two intercut ideas.  The first is a strongly dissonant chordal sequence followed immediately by another.  The latter has a richer tonal background, and this because it is one of Górecki’s borrowings.  In earlier years he typically quoted other composers verbatim, but by now he had moved towards subtler and more developmental allusions to the past.  In this instance he quotes an idea from the first movement of the String Quartet no.2 (1927) by his compatriot Karol Szymanowski.  It is no exaggeration to say that Szymanowski’s influence on Górecki was fundamental to his creative thinking, not least because of their fascination – at different times – with the folk cultures of the Tatra Mountains in southern Poland.

The third movement, however, stutters to a halt.  The fourth movement begins with the two intercut ideas from the third, followed by other earlier material.  It is as if the composer is feeling his way forward, gingerly, uncertain.  Górecki eventually settles on a new melody in thirds, played above repeated major triads (Tranquillo, dolce, cantabile.  Morbido).  This is succeeded by the now-familiar idea of a melodic line doubled at the minor ninth, before the movement returns to the quieter motifs of the first section.

The finale is dominated by a concern to resolve tensions through a fantasia-like recall (what once would have been called ‘cyclic’) and a firmer emphasis on major chording.  As in earlier instances, such chordal ideas often have the tone of the hymn or chorale, and there is no escaping the fact that, for Górecki, the sacred and the secular, as well as the programmatic and the abstract, were inextricably intertwined.  While his music may appear straightforward and direct, simple in its honesty, the response of listeners often underscores its potent expressive quality and the fact that shared contemplation in music is a complex wonder.  Contemplation was always central to Górecki.  As a student, he could admire the natural world with no sign of turmoil, as conjured up by the Polish poet, Julian Tuwim: ‘Here I am resting joyfully in myself, wrapped in deep silence on all sides’.  Forty years later, this contemplation had been coloured by human experience and a profound understanding of human frailty.  While he was no longer a solitary figure, he knew that he had to face his own death alone.

© 2011 Adrian Thomas


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