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Hyperion Records

CDA67684 - Szymanowski & Rózycki: String Quartets
From a Tale (1912) by Karol Homolacs (1874-1962)
© Mazovian Museum, Plock, Poland / Bridgeman Art Library, London

Recording details: March 2008
Potton Hall, Dunwich, Suffolk, United Kingdom
Produced by Andrew Keener
Engineered by Simon Eadon
Release date: January 2009
Total duration: 70 minutes 0 seconds


'This is what Szymanowski needs: firm, full-bodied playing, with a wide range of dynamic, colour and attack, and with all the unexpected twists and turns confidently negotiated … in every way this comfortably outstrips the disappointing recording by the Schoenberg quartet, making a persuasive bid for best available version … the clarity of the recording lets the myriad details speak eloquently' (Gramophone)

'This welcome new disc … the Royals have a special feeling for texture and colour, which is vital in this music, but an equally strong sense of structure … every note in these pieces remains distinctive and original—confirming Szymanowski as a still underrated master of the medium. Making what must now count as the best recording of these works even more satisfying, the Szymanowski quartets are wrapped around the String Quartet of Różycki … a hidden gem' (BBC Music Magazine)

'This is music for consenting adults only. Imagine the steamier bits of Wagner's Tristan, the mystical frenzy of Skryabin and the lusciousness of Ravel's String Quartet combined together, and you'll have some idea of Karol Szymanowski's two string quartets … the Royal String Quartet do them proud' (The Daily Telegraph)

'They play Szymanowski's two quartets with exactly the right combination of local folksy fervour and the textural variety that their country's most important composer after Chopin shared with his modernist contemporaries. The results are the finest performances of these two compact and luminously intense works currently available' (The Guardian)

'These Polish musicians give rich-hued and intelligent performances of each of the three works … Szymanowski's First Quartet is strongly individual music … a decade later, the Second Quartet is expressed with yet more confidence' (The Sunday Times)

'A loving performance of sweeping emotional impact … the quartet's buzzing, humming, piercing presence packs a gratifying wallop' (Fanfare, USA)

Szymanowski & Różycki: String Quartets
Andante  [5'48]
Allegro  [9'54]
Lento  [5'35]

The all-Polish Royal String Quartet are one of the most interesting and dynamically developing string quartets of the young generation. They are particularly acclaimed for their performances of music from their homeland, and have received the Special Prize of the Polish Ministry of Culture and National Heritage ‘in recognition of their contribution to Polish culture’. Continuing this theme, their debut recording for Hyperion features music by Szymanowski and Rózycki.

The two Szymanowski quartets are contrasting masterpieces from different periods in the composer’s varied career. The first seems reminiscent of Szymanowski’s Violin Concerto No 1 in its impressionistic sound world, its voluptuous, erotic sensibility and its layers of texture and colour. The second quartet is from the composer’s last phase, and draws on the full range of folk materials he had encountered in the Tatra highlands, and which inspired him to a new and more ‘authentic’ modernism. It is a piece of granitic strength and ruggedness.

We complete the disc with a contemporary rarity, the String Quartet by Rózycki, a work which shows the virtues of a late-Romantic idiom untouched by French or Russian style, and touched only lightly by central European folk influences.

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Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
This recording presents three string quartets that mark different cultural and aesthetic moments of Polish music of the earlier twentieth century. They also demonstrate what riches might be gained by bringing a broader range of central European works from the decades 1880–1939 into the familiar quartet repertoire. Karol Szymanowski (1882–1937) and Ludomir Rózycki (1884–1953) had briefly been associated as fellow members of the short-lived ‘Young Poland in Music’ (‘Mloda Polska w muzyce’), a group which staged its inaugural concert in 1906. Yet the group seems not to have been very close knit and had no common manifesto; its four young composers soon got their own ideas, and quickly went their own ways. Thereafter, they were each to make rather different individual contributions to the course of Polish and central European music more generally.

Szymanowski was by nature and by vocation an eclectic of an advanced and original kind, an explorer and experimenter with a fabulously acute musical ear, who sought the very highest aesthetic standards. He was one of those rare artists (Zemlinsky was another): an eclectic with a unique voice and ‘tone’. Rózycki, by contrast, pursued a much less adventurous path after the dissipation of the initially hopeful, and potentially radical, energies of ‘Ml/oda Polska’. But he never lost the strong craftsmanlike vision that was his by aptitude and training; and his compositional invention remained strong and idiomatic in a way that shows just how tenacious were the high musical ideals of the late Romantic conservatives, in Poland as elsewhere.

The two Szymanowski quartets were written a decade apart (1917 and 1927), one before and one after the long years of work on his opera King Roger (1918–24). Considered together they offer, besides a certain evident kinship deriving from the shared medium and the composer’s very individual treatment of it, a snapshot of his striking musical evolution over that time. Both are cast in three movements, and both are beautifully succinct in form and gesture. They each use an extended tonality, a wide harmonic palette, often rapid shifts of texture and tempo, and fluid thematic evolutions. In general they exploit the sonic possibilities of the four instruments, as a cohesive but differentiated group, with as much verve and originality as any quartet works of their time.

Szymanowski’s String Quartet No 1 in C major Op 37 was written in 1917, and its composition was drastically interrupted by the outbreak of the Russian Revolution in October (it was finally performed for the first time in 1924). None of this is apparent in the piece, however, which together with the immediately preceding Piano Sonata No 3 marks the flowering of a clear—and refined, as well as vigorous—classicizing impulse in Szymanowski’s music. The tonally framed Lento assai puts forward an intensely post-Wagnerian, French-influenced lyricism in the guise of a slow introduction. The idiom here beautifully balances enriched diatonic harmony with chromatic voice-leading. The Allegro moderato, following continuously without a break, marks the beginning of a fluid and at times pungently dramatic sonata movement which arrives at a taut and original balance of elements. It shows great deftness in weaving together a range of different materials in different textures to create a sonata pattern that has a powerfully episodic and gestural, as well as thematic, structure. Characteristically for the composer, there are rapid swings of mood and tempo. The fascinating intensifying passage marked scherzando alla burlesca stands somewhat as a free contrasting development, centrally placed within the movement. It is almost an independent episode, showing how sonata functions may be freely reinterpreted with wit and fantasy, yet still to serious purpose. In context, it is breathtaking.

The songlike slow movement in E major (‘in modo d’una canzone’) shows just how vividly the composer could present even his most diatonic melody, with a textural and harmonic light and shade that somehow, for all the passing moments of a darker and more poignant colour, never obscure the beautifully simple lyric thread of the movement as a whole. The classicizing impulse is here well caught: expressed with feeling and full of subtlety, without a hint of dryness. The finale has wit and drive, as well as thematic resource, and is characterized by an almost boisterous energy. This reflects the fact that it was originally written as the scherzo of a four-movement work; but Szymanowski finally decided, as late as 1924–5, that it should stand as the finale of a three-movement quartet. After an arresting ‘Beethovenian’ opening gesture, it presents an unassuming diatonic fugal theme in 3/4 on successive entries each a minor third apart from the last (C–E flat–F sharp–A). This then gives the layered ‘contrapuntal harmony’ something of the feel of an axial polymodality, ŕ la Bartók. The movement is concise yet offers a succession of contrasting episodes of great rhythmic and textural variety. We may observe that the idea of fugue is something of a conceit here (remembering that this was at first a scherzo): the composer largely ignores the conventions of fugal layout in favour of episodic variation and rhythmic development. New accompaniments and new counterpoints are constantly interjected, serving to project, often with considerable force, the varied lineaments of the theme. The course of the final peroration begins fast and exhilarating; but the music unexpectedly winds down, ending quietly with a witty pizzicato cadence into C major.

Ludomir Rózycki's String Quartet in D minor Op 49 dates from 1915–16, just prior to Szymanowski’s first quartet, though in harmony and texture it sounds as though it could predate it by a generation. Certainly, it displays little of Szymanowski’s experimentalism and none of his fastidiously radical streak. Yet it would be wrong simply to think of it, uncritically, as retrograde. Rather, it shows the virtues of a late-Romantic idiom untouched by French or Russian style, and touched only lightly by central European folk influences.

The quartet as a whole is written within a D minor/ D major orbit, and laid out on a large scale: it has only three movements, but these are broadly proportioned. The quartet sound, moreover, is generally very richly scored. The harmonic idiom is one of strong late-Romantic tonality, with roving key areas and chromatic intensification but little free chromatic voice-leading that might undermine the sense of tonal cohesion. (Analogies might perhaps be drawn here with Suk, Dohnányi, Reznicek, or Korngold.) After an opening Andante as slow introduction, in which we hear the leading theme of the movement first presented, the Allegro follows a clear sonata pattern, with contrasting tonal and thematic areas observed, and appropriately dramatized, in the expected places. The expressive ebb and flow within different areas of the movement is reflected in a wide range of subsidiary tempo indications and other performance markings. There is no exposition repeat. Instead, the long lyrical second subject group (broadly in F major, though approached from flat-side keys) flows out directly into strong, chromatically developed material—appassionato then ancora piů appassionato—and from there into a quieter, if still impassioned, phase of development in which new motivic working is heard against sul ponticello textures (where the bow plays very near to the bridge). The development contains perhaps the most striking and original writing within the movement, showing real drive and, in its later stages, a rhythmic power and strong chordal articulation of a kind quite beyond the usual late-Romantic range.

The opening of the G flat major second movement brings a quiet melody played con sordino with ‘artless’ simplicity (initially on viola, followed by first violin), accompanied in a homophonic, almost hymnic style—but with lyric sensuality rather than sublimity as the main expressive goal. After a period of intensification which moves through a central modulatory section, beginning quietly but then growing (Molto tranquillo followed by poco stringendo e crescendo), we hear the main theme again in its home key, more broadly scored this time across a wider tessitura (marked ff largamente), before it returns once more to a lower tessitura, to be played in the original tempo and in a quieter texture.

The vigorous third movement begins with a boisterous theme of drive and buoyancy, almost as much scherzo as finale in character. In this material we catch a strong hint of a direct, popularizing style. The energy of the material is expressed through phases of intensification and changes of tempo (accelerando, then Tempo I) and through contrasting subsidiary sections (Meno [mosso] and sul ponticello, then Lento). The ‘home tempo’ Allegro eventually returns again, and just prior to the final paragraph there is an ‘apotheosis’ of the lyric theme from the slow movement (Quasi andante in G flat, followed by Lento in G major). The peroration is to be played giocoso: a joyous and exuberant sprint to the finish.

The String Quartet No 2 Op 56 opens evocatively with a weightless suspended theme on violin and cello playing two octaves apart, with a delicately scored accompaniment in between, that instantly recalls Ravel. Yet such is the composer’s sureness of touch (or else his sleight of hand) that he is able to keep us, as listeners, within an expressive world that is unmistakably and entirely his own—as can clearly be heard when this particular sonic effect is developed, in a wholly original way, a little further on within the very free (and mysterious) development, before being given once more in its original form at the (allusively compressed) recapitulation. There is perhaps a residual sonata pattern at work, but one based more on relative degrees of stability and instability, and on the skilful juxtaposition of different types of contrasting material, than on any tonal-thematic relations or reference points. Sonata form functions as, at most, a dynamic archetype or a dramatic ideal. Yet this is in every way an expressively ‘big’ movement, for all its sense of mystery and distance, its refinement (dolce e tranquillo), its incipient fragmentation, and its melancholic hinting at discontinuity and dissolution. The brilliant, subtle way it is all stitched together once more demonstrates the extreme acuity and sensitivity of the composer’s ear.

The second movement (Vivace scherzando) is a scherzo of extraordinary power and forcefulness, drawing in full on the range of folk materials and techniques that the composer had encountered in the Tatra highlands, which now inspired him to a new and more ‘authentic’ modernism. It is a piece of granitic strength and ruggedness, so that even the quieter and less violent moments still have a piercing intensity. From the very opening gesture, it is astonishing. It uses melodic strands of apparently Tatra provenance that are set against contrasting chordal and tremolo material, with strong ostinato and gestural elements everywhere apparent. Pizzicato, sul ponticello and other playing techniques colour and enliven the music by harnessing the physicality of the instruments themselves—again as in Bartók (though we may catch hints, too, in this movement of Szymanowski’s fervent admiration for the young Stravinsky). The sequence of moods and textures is again rapid, even mercurial; and the changes of direction are of an eruptive force. The movement concludes with a relentless energy that allows no let-up.

The third movement is a concluding Lento, the main theme of which is initially presented as a slow, melancholy fugue—distantly reminiscent, perhaps, of late Beethoven or prescient of Shostakovich, but far closer in sound to Bartók, with a sustained and at times almost expressionistic intensity that also recalls the Hungarian master (whose Third Quartet would pip Szymanowski’s Second to the post in the Philadelphia Music Fund competition). The fugal theme, a borrowed Tatra highland (nógal) melody, is treated developmentally, almost iconically, as a kind of ostinato or motto, being changed in shape and rhythm and heard against a vast array of quartet sonorities and effects. Again, Szymanowski uses fugue as a kind of pretext (or precursor) to other expressive forces: once more, we find the movement as a whole is founded on the form-generating powers of contrast and free variation. Its conclusion is energetic and driven, and, if not quite yet freely and openly joyous, brings more than a hint of cathartic release.

Philip Weller © 2009

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