Hyperion Records

… songs are sung 'String Quartet No 3', Op 67
completed in January 1995 but not released by the composer until 2005; commissioned and first performed by the Kronos Quartet

'Górecki: String Quartets' (CDA67812)
Górecki: String Quartets
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Movement 1: Adagio, molto andante, cantabile
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Movement 2: Largo cantabile
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Movement 3: Allegro sempre ben marcato
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Movement 4: Deciso, espressivo ma ben tenuto
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Movement 5: Largo, tranquillo
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… songs are sung 'String Quartet No 3', Op 67
Górecki always worked at his own pace. Before he came to the notice of a worldwide audience in the early 1990s, this went unremarked, and he was comfortable in taking his time. But the history of the String Quartet No 3 suggests that his pattern of work was disrupted by the extraordinary response to the third symphony and the demands placed on his time to travel and meet audiences. While the draft of the third quartet was composed quickly and completed in January 1995, it was not premiered for another ten years. At the back of the manuscript, Górecki wrote: ‘Only now, in 2005, have I amended it here and there and written it out neatly. In the intervening years there were several dates set for the work’s premiere by the Kronos Quartet … but I continued to hold back from releasing it to the world. I don’t know why.’ This delay might imply a new and wholly unexpected lack of confidence, yet he need not have worried. The third quartet has been hailed as a masterly successor to the first two quartets.

The String Quartet No 3 is enigmatically titled … songs are sung. This, like the title of the first quartet, is a variant on a phrase from an existing text, this time a poem by the early twentieth-century Russian writer Velimir Khlebnikov (1885–1922):

When horses die, they breathe,
When grasses die, they wither,
When suns die, they go out,
When people die, they sing songs.

Unlike his recourse to the Renaissance motet in the first quartet, Górecki’s reference here has no musical implications and, as he emphatically stated, no programmatic resonances. For him, it was just a creative starting point. There is no denying, however, the work’s pervasive introspection and tone of lamentation.

The first of the five movements recalls the opening of the second quartet, although instead of a solitary repeated pedal note there is the dark sound of a low minor third. What gradually becomes apparent is the enlarged timescale of Górecki’s repetitions and developments, and this brings to mind the expansive scale not only of the Symphony No 3 but also of works such as the cantata for Pope John Paul II, Beatus vir (1979), and the Miserere for a cappella choir (1981). The movement ends with three sustained chords, not this time diatonic, but an open fifth topped by a note a minor ninth above the bass. Once again, he has used a familiar device, though transformed from the strident versions in the previous quartets into something more plangent.

The sombre mood carries over into the second movement, its sustained low chords supporting melodic ideas that strive upwards in thirds. The short central section is somewhat brighter in tone, as the music emphasizes major triads as well as revealing the folk roots of the movement’s initial melodic material.

With the third movement, the only fast one in the third quartet, Górecki regains his jovial self in a manner familiar from the earlier quartets. Perhaps this was because he began it on his sixty-first birthday, which coincidentally is the day in Poland when children are given presents to celebrate St Nicholas. It becomes apparent that the main material is thematically related to the previous movements. This integration becomes ever more significant as the work progresses, underlining the fantasia elements in Górecki’s compositional thinking in his chamber music.

The distinctive feature here (although not new when considering his creative processes over the years) is the unexpected contrast provided by two intercut ideas. The first is a strongly dissonant chordal sequence followed immediately by another. The latter has a richer tonal background, and this is because it is one of Górecki’s borrowings. In earlier years he typically quoted other composers verbatim, but by now he had moved towards subtler and more developmental allusions to the past. In this instance he quotes an idea from the first movement of the String Quartet No 2 (1927) by his compatriot Karol Szymanowski. It is no exaggeration to say that Szymanowski’s influence on Górecki was fundamental to his creative thinking, not least because of their fascination—at different times—with the folk cultures of the Tatra Mountains in southern Poland.

The third movement, however, stutters to a halt. The fourth movement begins with the two intercut ideas from the third, followed by other earlier material. It is as if the composer is feeling his way forward, gingerly, uncertain. Górecki eventually settles on a new melody in thirds, played above repeated major triads (Tranquillo, dolce, cantabile. Morbido). This is succeeded by the now-familiar idea of a melodic line doubled at the minor ninth, before the movement returns to the quieter motifs of the first section.

The finale is dominated by a concern to resolve tensions through a fantasia-like recall (what once would have been called ‘cyclic’) and a firmer emphasis on major chording. As in earlier instances, such chordal ideas often have the tone of the hymn or chorale, and there is no escaping the fact that, for Górecki, the sacred and the secular, as well as the programmatic and the abstract, were inextricably intertwined. While his music may appear straightforward and direct, simple in its honesty, the response of listeners often underscores its potent expressive quality and the fact that shared contemplation in music is a complex wonder. Contemplation was always central to Górecki. As a student, he could admire the natural world with no sign of turmoil, as conjured up by the Polish poet, Julian Tuwim: ‘Here I am resting joyfully in myself, wrapped in deep silence on all sides.’ Forty years later, this contemplation had been coloured by human experience and a profound understanding of human frailty. While he was no longer a solitary figure, he knew that he had to face his own death alone.

from notes by Adrian Thomas © 2011

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