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Hyperion Records

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From a Tale (1912) by Karol Homolacs (1874-1962)
© Mazovian Museum, Plock, Poland / Bridgeman Art Library, London
Track(s) taken from CDA67684
Recording details: March 2008
Potton Hall, Dunwich, Suffolk, United Kingdom
Produced by Andrew Keener
Engineered by Simon Eadon
Release date: January 2009
Total duration: 19 minutes 13 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)

String Quartet No 1 in C major, Op 37
1917; first performed in Warsaw in 1924

Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
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, à 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.

from notes by Philip Weller © 2009

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