Górecki: String Quartets Nos 1-3

Our rating 
5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

LABELS: Hyperion
WORKS: String Quartets Nos 1-3
PERFORMER: Royal Quartet

Henryk Górecki’s penchant for a ‘lullaby’ effect, rocking between two chords, crops up in different guises in these Quartets. Its effect is not always restful or reassuring. The First Quartet, Already it is Dusk (1988), takes its title and theme from A Prayer for Children Going to Sleep by the 16th-century composer Szamotu√. Gentle passages are disrupted by fearsome outbreaks of re-iterated motifs. The music does not promise immunity from the terrors of the night but perhaps suggests ways of surviving them, advice that could have been welcome at a time when the continuation of the liberalisation process in Poland was far from assured.
Notwithstanding the deliberate nod to Beethoven in its title, the Second Quartet, Quasi una Fantasia (1991), is full of frenetic, barbaric folk-dance, with a ferocity worthy of Bartók. Quiet reflections undermined by unease are displaced by melodramatic sweeps of melody increasingly infiltrated by those fearsome dances until, just under three minutes before the end, the yearning atmosphere returns with a ghostly appearance of Silent Night.
The monumental, unsettling, spellbinding Third Quartet was completed in January 1995, but Górecki withheld the score for ten years. Predominantly slow, apart from dance-like figures in the third movement, it carries many echoes of his heartbreaking Third Symphony. 
The quartets were commissioned by Kronos, whose recordings on Nonesuch must command respect and attention, but the Royal’s performances rival them with playing that is passionate and sharp-edged, capturing the emotional depth and intensity of the music equally vividly. Barry Witherden