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String Quartet No 2, Op 56

'Szymanowski & Różycki: String Quartets' (CDA67684)
Szymanowski & Różycki: String Quartets
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Movement 1: Moderato, dolce e tranquillo
Movement 2: Vivace scherzando
Movement 3: Lento

String Quartet No 2, Op 56
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.

from notes by Philip Weller © 2009

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