About this Recording
8.573164 - PANUFNIK, A.: String Quartets Nos. 1-3 / LUTOSŁAWSKI, W.: String Quartet (Tippett Quartet)

Andrzej Panufnik (1914–1991): String Quartets Nos. 1–3
Witold Lutosławski (1913–1994): String Quartet


The string quartets of Witold Lutosławski (1913–1994) and Andrzej Panufnik (1914–1991) occupy significant though very different places within their respective outputs. For the former, it enabled him to clarify his intentions at the outset of his most innovative phase of creativity. For the latter, it was the means of delving further into those abstract though never wantonly cerebral concerns that came into prominence during his most radical period of composing. In both instances, innovation and consolidation were inextricably and productively intertwined.

Chamber pieces had featured relatively seldom in Panufnik’s music before the 1970s, though an increasing inwardness and focussing on essentials had been evident over the course of the previous decade. The First String Quartet was written for the Aeolian Quartet, who gave the première in London on 19 October 1976 and that of the revised version on 16 May the next year. The work originally consisted of just Prelude and Transformation, but the Postlude was added to endow the work with a sense of dialectic being played out to its ultimate resolution.

Prelude opens with a chord echoing into silence, after which the quartet exchanges isolated fragments as underline the very different personalities accorded each of the four instruments, while gradually taking on the guise of defined motifs then coalescing into a more sustained discourse. Transformations (3’51”) starts with a chord conversely emerging in a crescendo, presaging a raptly inward discourse which unfolds in sustained harmonies across all four instruments before heading into the upper reaches of the violins. At length the music grows more restless as the violin intones a pensive melodic line against eerie sul ponticello textures, soon building to a forceful four-way statement which constitutes the emotional apex of the work. From here the expression becomes more strenuous as it reaches a peak of intensity. Postlude (15’36”) starts when the previous section is cut off at its height, the instruments trading fugitive rhythmic gestures that—as in the first section—gradually come together in a cumulative activity that sees the work through to its purposeful close on a unison chord.

The Second String Quartet was written in 1980 for the North Wales Music Festival, and was first performed by the Gabrieli Quartet at St Asaph’s Cathedral on 25 September that year. Its subtitle, Messages, hints at origins on which Panufnik elaborated in a lucid programme note attached to the score: “When I was seven or eight years old, on holiday in the country, my favourite pastime was to put my ear to the wooden telegraph poles and listen to sounds produced by the poles vibrating in the wind. After a while I became convinced that I was listening to real music, which retrospectively I think was my first experience of the creative process—as for the first time I made use of my musical imagination.” In a single continuous movement, the piece has a motivic coherence and unity remarkable even for this composer.

The work commences with barely audible string harmonics that emerge into a fully-fledged discourse over the quartet as a whole. At length the violin detaches itself from the prevailing texture as it pursues a more animated idea that migrates to the other instruments, motivating the discourse as it grows in emotional impetus to a powerful statement that finally vanishes upwards into silence. From here the music resumes on a more subdued level, before it once again ascends towards more intensive exchanges that are cut off at their height to make way for aggressive pizzicato writing that, in turn, leads to further intensive dialogue which grows more truculent rhythmically. Its main motif duly ascends through all four of the instruments, bringing an impassioned culmination that presently dies down to a halting resumption of the rhythmic exchanges heard previously. The texture now fragments further before heading into another subdued dialogue which itself elides back into the harmonics from the very opening, now returning to bring matters full circle in a conclusion that slowly recedes out of earshot.

The Third String Quartet is among Panufnik’s final works and was a commission from the John S. Cohen Foundation for the London International String Quartet Competition in 1991—being given its official première by the winning ensemble, the Wihan Quartet, at London’s Barbican Hall on 15 April that year. Its subtitle, ‘Wycinanki’, refers to paper cuts familiar in Polish rustic art and which the composer (who drew on them in his Sinfonia Rustica of 43 years earlier) described as ‘symmetrical designs of magical abstract beauty and naïve charm.’

As befits its didactic nature, the work falls into five continuous sections each of which focuses on different aspects of quartet playing. Thus the first section begins with an overlapping unison chord that opens out into an austere texture with subtle hints of a chorale in the violins. The second section heads into a more substantial dialogue where the four instruments musingly trade melodic gestures before the violins and viola suddenly head towards the top of their respective compasses. The previous dialogue is then resumed before, with the third section, a passage of stealthy pizzicato writing becomes increasingly aggressive and intricate as it proceeds. It is succeeded, in the fourth section, by forceful rhythmic gestures and energetic passage work across the quartet as a whole. This is abruptly cut off to reveal, in the fifth and final section, a raptly expressive texture shot through with folk music inflections and which incorporates a spectral canon between the violins as it builds to a brief climax before dying into nothingness. In just twelve minutes Panufnik has elucidated the essentials of quartet playing.

The String Quartet (1964) by Lutosławski came at a time when his preceding pieces—the ensemble Jeux vénetiens [Naxos 8.554283] and the choral Three Poems of Henri Michaux [8.553779]—had propelled him to the forefront of the European avant-garde though without providing the basis for future exploration. With its taut but flexible sequence of movements (taken from Bartók’s Second Violin Sonata [8.550749]), this work was a commission from Swedish Radio and first played by the LaSalle Quartet in Stockholm on 12 March 1965.

The Introductory Movement starts with fleeting gestures on violin that gradually take on a greater formal focus and expressive profile prior to the entry of the other instruments. The process is repeated as the quartet engages in a varied dialogue punctuated by the curt two-note motif heard in different registers. This appears first in a passage of pizzicato writing, then in one of euphonious character, then in one of limpid textures: the pattern continuing as the episodes become more differentiated in manner until the motif threatens to become dominant. At length the cello is allotted a fragmented transition which heads straight into the Main movement, which commences with violent exchanges on all four instruments, becoming no less aggressive when these are transferred to pizzicato in an extraordinarily kaleidoscopic texture. Downward plunging glissandos assume the foreground, the music simmering intently as the discourse becomes less demonstrative but no less intense, and taking in a wide range of sound while it builds as if from sheer force of will to the jagged culmination that falls apart when the instruments successively fall out of the texture. This leaves the violin musing on the fleeting gestures heard at the outset, whereupon the others reenter in a mood of pensive regret which is duly intensified in fuller and more emotive terms. This complex polyphony gradually thins out in tone and texture, but a belated burst of speculative activity ensures that the outcome remains unforeseeable until the very last.

Richard Whitehouse

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