Notes and Editorial Reviews
The essay in the program booklet for this release of Górecki's String Quartet No. 3 (...songs were sung), makes much of a supposed caesura in Górecki's creative output following the phenomenal success of Nonesuch's 1992 release of this Third Symphony, with soprano Dawn Upshaw, which elevated him practically to the level of a pop star. The essay implies that his meteoric rise to being one of the most famous and popular contemporary composers may have produced a creative crisis that caused him to wait until 2005 to finally deliver the score of his Third Quartet, which he had written in the winter of 1994-1995. In fact, Górecki's sudden notoriety seems to have had little effect on his creativity; between 1993 and 2004, he
wrote 16 opus numbers.
The String Quartet No. 3 inhabits much the same musical and emotional universe as the composer's Third Symphony and the earlier string quartets -- an overwhelming sense of sadness followed by a cathartic peacefulness, created by the use of figural repetition; predominantly slow tempos, which are very occasionally punctuated by faster, often ironic, outbursts; the use of melancholy, folk-like melodies; and mildly dissonant minor key chorale-like textures that tend toward harmonic stasis. The five-movement quartet is constructed in a loose arch form, with material from the first movements repeated in the last movements and an ending that mirrors the beginning. The composer throws in enough surprises, such as a surprisingly stolid and romantic theme that appears in the third and fourth movements, to relieve the quartet's darkness. The response to the composer's Third Symphony will be a good indicator of the listener's appreciation of this quartet because it shares so many qualities with that work. The Kronos Quartet, which commissioned the piece, gives it a technically superlative and emotionally wrenching performance. Nonesuch's sound is intimate and warm, with excellent balance.
-- Stephen Eddins, AllMusic.com
String Quartet No. 3,
“…songs are sung”
Kronos Str Qrt
NONESUCH 104380 (50:15)
Henryk Górecki finished his Third String Quartet, a commission for the Kronos, in 1995, but then waited 10 years before he released it. The notes are cagey about the reason, but as a composer I can understand his hesitation. Górecki, an extremely intense, private, and scrupulous artist, had achieved a level of international fame and popularity unparalleled in recent years with his Third Symphony, and I suspect that the sense of responsibility and expectation that attended any piece soon thereafter may have been stressful. Add to this the fact that the Symphony is unremittingly consonant, slow, and lyrical, and that many of his early works, while paced in the same deliberate manner, did not shy away from abrasive dissonances (always employed to make an expressive point). And then finally, it may just be the case that he wasn’t satisfied with the piece.
And for the last point, I see why. The Third Quartet (its subtitle taken from a mournful poem by Valentin Klebnikov, which Górecki read in Polish translation) is a very risky affair. It is 50 minutes long, in five movements arranged in arch structure. Only the third movement is fast, and it lasts a mere four and a half minutes in comparison to each of the others’ 10-minute-plus durations. The four slow movements are also very plain in the materials and figuration. The usual texture is the lower two strings playing some sort of “dragging” ostinato while the violins sing chant-like above them. Much material is recurrent, or subtly transformed from one movement to another. The overall tone is very dark, pierced by small rays of light every once in a while.
The first time I listened, the piece seemed too lugubrious to me, and frankly Górecki sounded tired. The simplicity seemed something of a cop-out, a fallback on tropes from Eastern liturgical and folk musics (as well as a brief Technicolor quotation from Szymanowski). But the second time around I found myself more accepting of the music’s world. If you relax and accept the pacing, you begin to hear quite beautiful and mysterious harmonic combinations. And there is a sense of transformation and journey over the long course of the piece. The sound, at first off-putting in its rather grey-colored surface, starts to be a genuine character in its own right (something the Kronos render beautifully—there’s no attempt to mitigate its inherent rawness, but at the same time its basic serenity and poise comes through). And in particular, the second movement (
) is quite remarkable, in that it eliminates the “tread” in the bass of the other sections, so that a chant in thirds floats above a more harmonically neutral ground, to haunting effect.
In fact, I feel the quartet might be quite successful if it were only the second movement, or if it had ended after the fourth. It still
seem somewhat too long for me, and this “mystical minimalist” aesthetic coming from Eastern Europe—a source of enormous power and beauty in many pieces by an important group of composers—now seems to me to have run its course. This doesn’t mean the quartet under consideration isn’t “good,” or even “beautiful.” I think it is. It’s just that it now feels like something of an afterthought, a sensibility in search of a new paradigm. I suspect this piece will get a lot of critical attention and performance, and I’ll be interested to see how much it is appraised with ears that are in the here-and-now, rather than falling back on a perspective shaped by Górecki’s impressive previous achievements and vision. As is, I find it powerful, it grows on me, but I also feel a little let down in the end.
Anyone who values the composer’s music will of course want this disc, and I think they won’t be disappointed. For those looking for an introduction to Górecki’s chamber music, I’d recommend instead the Kronos recording of the first two quartets, on Nonesuch 79319.
FANFARE: Robert Carl
Works on This Recording
Quartet for Strings no 3, Op. 67 "Songs are sung" by Henryk Mikolaj Górecki
David Harrington (Violin),
Hank Dutt (Viola),
John Sherba (Violin),
Jeffrey Zeigler (Cello)
Period: 20th Century
Written: 2005; Poland
Date of Recording: 08/2006
Venue: Skywalker Sound, Nicasio, CA
Length: 10 Minutes 33 Secs.
I. Adagio-Molto Andante-Cantabile
III. Allegro, Sempre ben marcato
IV. Deciso-Espressivo ma ben tenuto
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