Movement 1: Lento assai – Allegro moderato
Movement 2: Andantino semplice, in modo d'una canzone – Adagio dolcissimo – Lento assai
Movement 3: Scherzando alla burlesca: Vivace
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