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Krzystof PENDERECKI (b. 1933)
String Quartet No. 1 (1960) [7:01]
String Quartet No. 2 (1968) [8:10]
String Quartet No. 3 ‘Leaves of an unwritten diary’ (2008) [19:04]
Witold LUTOSLAWSKI (1913-1994)
String Quartet (1964) [25:06]
Royal String Quartet
rec. 26-28 March 2012, Potton Hall, Dunwich, Suffolk
HYPERION CDA67943 [59:24]

How much difference two or three hundred years have made to the string quartet, and indeed how much has changed since 1962, when the LaSalle Quartet premiered Krzystof Penderecki’s String Quartet No. 1. Josef Haydn might perhaps have wondered why on earth composers were still using such an antiquated medium for expressing themselves in such changed times, but if he had heard the works on this recording he would, no doubt after plucking at his wig in confounded agitation and declaring that the world had gone mad, have to admit that this combination of instruments can indeed adapt itself to almost any compositional idiom. Just as a classic car can do a circuit of a modern race track and have us on the edge of our seats, so the string quartet can excite our senses and enrich our lives, and this excellent recording from the Royal String Quartet brings us into contact with some now classic examples of what the 20th century made of its 18th century ancestor.
 
Penderecki’s String Quartet No. 3 might be the best place to start when approaching this disc. This relatively recent work is harder to find on disc than the others, and the Royal String Quartet play it with passion and verve. Penderecki’s remarkable range of effects and his emotional twists and turns take us on a roller-coaster ride which ranges from bizarre waltzes, persistent harmonic pendulums somewhat reminiscent of Shostakovich, and moments of rare pathos and tenderness. This work appeared 40 years after the String Quartet No. 2, and Penderecki’s change to a more romantic style infuses the third quartet, filling it with points of recognition such as lyrical melodic lines and urgent rhythmic passages. This in many ways is the star work of this programme, and the performance on this recording does justice to the work’s intensity and sheer variety of expression.
 
Penderecki’s first two string quartets were written amidst Poland’s revolutionary preoccupation with ‘sonorism’, an approach which broke with traditions of form and notation, often working with textures and timbres, with fields of sound and a direct paeans of communication rather than outmoded aesthetics of harmonic convention and cadence. The Royal String Quartet’s performances of these earlier works are very good, and if you are more interested in having this complete set ‘in the bag’ than much else then these recordings will do very nicely. More has however been said on this music in the past, and more emphatically.
 
Competitors in recordings of Penderecki’s string quartets include that on the DUX label (see review), which I unfortunately didn’t have to hand for comparison. The LaSalle Quartet’s recording of the work they premiered, the String Quartet No. 1 plus their recording of the Lutoslawski String Quartet is also one we need to be aware of (see review). This recording originated on the Deutsche Grammophon label, and their performance of Penderecki’s String Quartet No. 1 has a closer perspective than that of the Royal String Quartet, allowing us to feel the sheer physicality of the strings bending and the air being pounded by the player’s almost brutal interaction with their instruments. The LaSalle quartet’s timing is close to that of the Royal String Quartet, but makes a more vivid impression through digging that much deeper. Penderecki’s first two quartets can also be found on a Wergo album of his chamber music, WER6258-2, with the Silesian String Quartet going at his String Quartet No. 1 with even more vigour, though set within a big acoustic this can on occasion be a bit aversive and over the top. The String Quartet No. 2 in this instance is genuinely terrifying, and I can only urge you to try it so you can understand what I mean. I’m afraid the Royal String Quartet is nowhere near as nightmarish.
 
Going back to the DG/Brilliant Classics comparison, with the Lutoslawski String Quartet the differences are initially less crucial in the sparing open spaces of the Introductory movement, though the LaSalle players give more of an impression of human voices in the way they communicate in the second Main movement, charging at and churning the response of the listener. The Royal String Quartet is very good, but you never quite escape the sense of instruments being played strangely, rather than entering the empty streets of a surreal dream world and encountering a crowd of people going WAAAAAAAAHHH.
 
My feeling with this recording is not so much any sense of deficiency in the playing for the most part, more a lack of daring when it came to the recording. This is typically magnificent Hyperion production, with keenly preserved instrumental colour and a fine sense of space in the Potton Hall acoustic. Where the other recordings mentioned win is in the sheer close-up and personal way the engineers have presented the music. The ideal-seat concert hall experience is all very well, but these are the kinds of sounds which to my mind demand perhaps a few extra microphones, or their placement perhaps a few inches closer to the players. This need not end up in an artificial sounding Hi-Fi test disc scenario as the LaSalle recording proves. The sheer wallop of Penderecki’s String Quartet No. 1 is just missed here as a result, though you can tell the players are not holding back. I fear the Silesian Quartet’s Wergo String Quartet No. 2 remains one of my all-time horror recordings, and the Royal String Quartet left me a bit high and dry by comparison. The Lutoslawski String Quartet is again well played, but the sheer personality and characterisation in the LaSalle recording remains unbeaten.
 
Dominy Clements

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