About this Recording
8.574110 - GÓRECKI, H.M.: String Quartets (Complete), Vol. 2 - No. 3 / Sonata for 2 Violins (Tippett Quartet)

Henryk Mikołaj Górecki (1933–2010)
Complete String Quartets • 2


Henryk Mikołaj Górecki was born on 6 December 1933 at Czernica in Silesia. He studied music at the High School (now Academy) of Music in Katowice, graduating with distinction in 1960 from the class of Bolesław Szabelski (who had been taught by Karol Szymanowski). Górecki gained his debut concert as a composer in 1958 in Katowice, which in its turn led to hearings at the Warsaw Autumn International Festival of Contemporary Music that included his First Symphony in 1959 and Scontri (Collisions) in 1960—the former piece duly going on to win First Prize at the 1961 Biennial Festival of Youth in Paris. While the style of Górecki’s compositions in his formative years did owe a considerable amount to Bartók and Stravinsky, from the start of the following decade this was being supplemented with elements of a post-Webern expressionism as well as a selective and often idiosyncratic use of serial technique.

Górecki’s 1960s pieces centred on cyclical works Genesis I–III (1962–63) and La Musiquette I–IV (1967–70), both of which are scored for chamber ensembles. Whereas Genesis adheres to the Polish ‘expressive sonorism’, a simplification of material is evident with the Musiquettes. These cycles were separated by the orchestral Refrain, for which Górecki received Third Prize at the UNESCO International Rostrum of Composers in Paris in 1967. Refrain can be heard as a turning point in his musical aesthetic through its use of imposing blocks of sound; while textural clusters, and above all the reverberating space around musical activity, heralds such pieces as the Second Symphony ‘Copernicus’ (1973) [Naxos 8.555375] and Third Symphony ‘Symphony of Sorrowful Songs’ (1976) [8.550822] which—whatever its uncertain premiere at the Royan Festival—belatedly secured its composer international status during the 1990s.

Despite this unexpected success, Górecki continued steadfastly on the highly personal route he had chosen after having composed it, as if reluctant to capitalise on his unexpected fame. Then he had waited over three years before producing his next large-scale work, the choral Beatus Vir (1979) [8.555375], written to mark the initial return visit to Poland of Pope John Paul II. This was followed by the monumental Miserere for unaccompanied voices (1981), written in support of the Polish trade union Solidarity, with ensemble music represented by such pieces as Lerchenmusik (1986), or the three string quartets written for the Kronos Quartet during 1988–95. Górecki’s last years were clouded by illness and largely devoted to shorter choral and instrumental pieces, though he had been working on a Fourth Symphony which remained unorchestrated (though latterly realized by his son Mikołaj Górecki, a notable composer in his own right) by the time of his death in Katowice on 12 November 2010.

As its opus number suggests, the Sonata for Two Violins (1957) is among Górecki’s earliest acknowledged works. Written while studying at State High School of Music in Katowice, it was inspired by Bartók’s 44 Duos and Prokofiev’s Sonata in C, and premiered at the Silesian capital’s Philharmonic Hall on 27 February 1958 by Edward Cygan and Henryk Gruszka. In its textural and dynamic contrasts, its confrontation between the lyrical and grotesque, the rivalry between instruments and sophisticated compositional technique, it provides a worthy rounding-off of Górecki’s formative period and anticipates the more radical idiom to come.

The first movement plunges straight into acerbic interplay, with melody and accompaniment alternating between the instruments. This is brought to an abrupt halt, whereupon a plangent threnody evolves—initially with sparse accompanying gestures, but gradually intensifying in mood and expression. A climax is reached with violins in unison, before a gradual transition into the music heard at the outset, from where a trenchant conclusion is reached. The second movement is an ethereal dialogue, initially with sparse pizzicato accompaniment as threatens to become more confrontational before subsiding into renewed contemplation. It remains for the finale to builds on those pizzicato gestures at its opening, from where a voluble interplay ensues with audible folk inflections carrying the work through to its strenuous ending.

Górecki’s first two string quartets [Naxos 8.573919] appeared in quick succession (1988 and 1991), and his Third Quartet was seemingly complete by January 1995. The more surprising, then, that it did not receive its premiere until 15 October 2005 at Bielsko-Biała, once more with the Kronos Quartet. The composer was conscious of this delay, noting at the back of the manuscript: ‘Only now, in 2005, have I amended it here and there then written it out neatly. During these intervening years there were several dates set for the work’s premiere … but I continued to hold back from releasing it to the world. I don’t know why.’ Speculation that the belated if massive success of his Third Symphony [8.550822] might have been a distraction from creative work seems unlikely; rather it has something to do with this piece’s intrinsic nature—its five movements playing for virtually an hour and representing a culmination of Górecki’s musical preoccupations over the preceding three decades. Certainly, there is no ostensible compromising of formal rigour or expressive focus across its monumental span.

The subtitle ‘…songs are sung’ is as obliquely evocative as any from Górecki’s earlier works. Its source lies in a paraphrase of lines from the poem by Russian author Velimir Khlebnikov (1885–1922), though the composer has stated this was no more than a creative starting point:

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

The first movement begins with wistfully musing exchanges over a halting accompaniment, building slowly in stages to an impassioned melodic statement that never quite emerges—instead, fervently repeated chordal gestures break off for a resumption of what was heard at the outset, from where the music subsides into numbed resignation. The second movement duly unfolds at an even slower tempo, in which melody and accompaniment seem so closely intertwined as often to seem barely distinguishable. What is striking is the density of texture that changes incrementally yet perceptibly over its course, latterly coalescing into a chorale-like theme of inward affirmation. This proves short-lived as the earlier music resumes after a pause, and proceeds to its pensive close. The third movement, much the briefest, brings the only fast music of the entire work—its driving thematic interplay heading forth impulsively so that considerable energy is accumulated. This is briefly checked by pauses before it heads towards a pulsating conclusion which suddenly loses impetus during the equivocal final bars.

The fourth movement commences with a melodic statement alluded to in its predecessor, but now extended into something that seems to encompass much of this work’s essential nature. Unfolding over an unchanging accompaniment, it grows more elaborate and emotive before sinking back into renewed contemplation as if intent on receding into silence. Harmonically this is one of this work’s most affecting passages—a searching transition, perhaps, into the fifth and longest movement. This starts with undulating phrases on the cello, the remaining instruments duly entering to create a ‘band’ of closely intertwined harmonies that alternately expands then contracts in dynamic range. Gradually the music takes on aspects of what was heard at the outset, as though intent on bringing the work full circle, while a plangent climax around midpoint sustains a sense of moving forward towards some undefined goal. Whether or not this is reached, those final minutes touch upon some of the most poignant expression penned by the composer—ultimately fronted by the cello to a conclusion of fatalistic repose.

Richard Whitehouse

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