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String Quartet
1964; first performed in Stockholm by the LaSalle Quartet in 1965

'Penderecki & Lutosławski: String Quartets' (CDA67943)
Penderecki & Lutosławski: String Quartets
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Part 1: Introductory
Part 2: Main

String Quartet
Witold Lutosławski was not a prolific composer, and his contribution to chamber music was not large. Just as the single quartets by Debussy and Ravel hold a significant position in the repertoire, so too does Lutosławski’s only quartet. It was premiered by the LaSalle Quartet (like Penderecki’s first), in Stockholm in 1965. The LaSalle players were at the forefront in the promotion of new music, especially the works of Schoenberg, Berg and Webern, but even they were surprised when the new piece arrived, with individual parts but no full score.

There was a good reason for this, as Lutosławski explained to the leader, Walter Lewin: ‘The piece consists of a sequence of mobiles which are to be played, one after another, without any pause if there is no other indication. Within certain points of time particular players perform their parts quite independently of each other … if I did write a normal score, superimposing the parts mechanically, it would be false, misleading, and it would represent a different work. That would deprive the piece of its “mobile” character, which is one of its most important features.’ In the end, Lutosławski’s wife Danuta, who wrote out the full scores and parts for many of his pieces, designed a large-format score where, within each ‘mobile’ in the sequence, each of the four parts was boxed separately in the standard vertical order, thus thwarting any chance of fixing the moment-to-moment alignment.

At the heart of Lutosławski’s concept in the 1960s was giving great flexibility to his performers while at the same time controlling the psychological and expressive direction of the music. The idea of these mobiles—which in later years he sometimes referred to as ‘bundles’—was that their internal character would be shared by the players through carefully sequenced rhythmic or melodic motifs and an underlying harmonic design.

The two movements are headed 'Introductory' and 'Main', with proportions of roughly 1:2. The quartet opens with a fragmented ‘monologue’, as the composer called it, played by the first violin and lasting almost two minutes. After being joined by the other players, the first violin intervenes briefly, before being united once again with the rest of the quartet. Once again, the ensemble is interrupted, this time by octave C naturals on the cello. A pattern has been set of ensemble musings interrupted by forthright C naturals, and this becomes the framework for the rest of the movement.

Lutosławski described his intentions in this way: ‘The octave framework intervenes as it were in the middle of a word. The result is a lack of satisfaction, since each episode does not actually fold up at the end, it is not completed but brusquely interrupted. This is the means of achieving the ‘uncompleted’, ‘unsatisfactory’ character of the whole introductory movement.’ A signal moment comes after the extensive C natural octave repetitions just before the movement ends. The figure becomes chromatically distorted and is played pizzicato, until the cello emerges to launch the second, 'Main' movement.

From the outset, this thrusts forward, dynamically and rhythmically alert, yet still organized as a sequence of ‘mobiles’. Partway through, the cello recalls its distorted pizzicato chord from the end of the 'Introductory' movement. On its first appearance, it sets off high keening violins, on the second, low scurryings. The fifth time, the whole ensemble joins in. In this way the ‘framework’ galvanizes the 'Main' movement towards the Appassionato section. This climactic passage eventually wastes away, reduced to isolated high pitches, a reminiscence, perhaps, of the quartet’s opening monologue.

It might seem that the 'Main' movement was exhausted at this point and coming to a close. Lutosławski has a surprise up his sleeve, because there are three highly expressive sections to come, what he once termed ‘Chorale figures’ (quiet sustained notes marked indifferente), ‘Funèbre figures’ (beginning on a unison F sharp) and a ‘series of short comments on [what] has just happened, and a farewell, an exit’. These final ‘mobiles’ therefore have a retrospective quality, brief recollections that emphasize the extraordinary potency not only of Lutosławski’s musical language but also of the innovative format in which he conceived and realized this string quartet.

from notes by Adrian Thomas © 2013

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Details for CDA67943 track 4
Recording date
28 March 2012
Recording venue
Potton Hall, Dunwich, Suffolk, United Kingdom
Recording producer
Andrew Keener
Recording engineer
Simon Eadon
Hyperion usage
  1. Penderecki & Lutoslawski: String Quartets (CDA67943)
    Disc 1 Track 4
    Release date: March 2013
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