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Karol SZYMANOWSKI (1882-1937)
String Quartet No. 1 in C major Op. 37 (1917)
String Quartet No. 2 Op. 56 (1927)
Camerata Quartet
Rec. Concert Hall, Karol Szymanowski State Music School, Warsaw, April 2000
DUX 0366 [35.34]

Szymanowski’s are pretty much the fons et origo of Polish string quartets. They take the impressionist aesthetic as near the Ravelian-Debussyian axis as it will comfortably go (listen to the opening of the second quartet) and are suffused with colour and a complex profile that ranges from archaisms and pointillist serenity through folk influence to bristling modernist fugato. The Polish Camerata Quartet set down these recordings in 2000 and I was impressed by them. The opening of the 1917 First Quartet is chaste and interior with an idiosyncratic languor but also an angular toughness less often remarked on with Szymanowski. The Camerata cultivate colouristic expression right from the start and they have an excellent uniformity of bowing subtleties, not least in this movement. They take a flowing tempo in the second movement compounded of andantino and bustling scherzo. The central panel here is well sustained at a wistfully withdrawn dynamic range and there’s real depth in the playing – before a folksy finale erupts. This is full of swaying fiddles and folk pizzicati – and a strong polytonal drive – and ends in a throwaway final couple of bars, ambiguous in its ultimate significance.

That Ravel haunts the opening of the 1927 Quartet is I think indisputable but the use to which Szymanowski puts his models is the more important factor. The Camerata manage Szymanowski’s exposed harmonics well – good intonation – and the collective tonal blend is always convincing. They are especially good in the folk dance of the Vivace scherzando second movement with perky "up and down" string figures and the seamless slowing down for the reflective intimacies of the contrastive material. The Camerata also hint at the uneasy unison writing later in the movement where the quartet reminds one less of Ravel now than Bartók. From the launch pad of the little Lento introduction the Camerata drive the finale to an intense and determined conclusion.

There’s some considerable competition in the catalogue in these quartets not least because this Dux disc lasts only thirty-five minutes, a fact I feel constrained to point out. The Maggini Quartet couple their recording of the quartets with the Fourth of Grazyna Bacewicz, brilliant programming, and the Varsovia Quartet include Lutosławski’s and Penderecki’s Second. Meanwhile the Carmina include Webern’s Langsamer Satz though it’s is probably less compelling as a coupling. I admired the Camerata’s playing – if timing considerations are against them I don’t think you’ll be disappointed by the performances.

Jonathan Woolf


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