Two new recordings of Penderecki’s String Quartets. Wow.

I recently discovered the two String Quartets of Ligeti and explored several recordings of them. They have made a profound impact on me and have expanded my musical horizons and created in me a newfound willingness to explore “modern” music. So it was with great interest that I came across and acquired two new recordings of the complete Penderecki Quartets, released within just a couple months of each other in 2021. 

As with the Ligeti, these works are completely new to me. And I have similarly been resistant to both composers in the past. However, newer recordings of this music have caused me to investigate with new ears. An unbelievable level of accomplishment in string quartet playing and excellence in recorded sound quality have allowed me to fully appreciate this music in a way never before experienced.

Starting with Penderecki’s first two Quartets, I found it interesting his Second reminds me of Ligeti’s Second, while his First is so completely different. If I had initially thought Ligeti was a little “out there”, I was in for a shock with Penderecki’s First! Looking at the score, there aren’t even notes. It’s all notations, as one would see in a percussion part. Even rhythmic indications are vague. (There are no Key or Time signatures.) But what is so utterly amazing, at least in these magnificent performances, is that it is not noise. It is sound. And that is an important distinction.

Comparing these two fantastic recordings is most enlightening. I am obviously not an expert in these Quartets, but I can make some general observations on what I hear in these performances of them.

The short story is this – the Tippett Quartet on Naxos are more matter-of-fact, with wider dynamic extremes and a recorded perspective which is more close up and immediate than the Chandos. The Silesian Quartet on Chandos are often subtler, more atmospheric, creating otherworldly soundscapes, with a more opulent, almost lush recording.

The Tippetts tell us what’s on the printed page, revealing more clearly how all those sounds are created, while the Silesians cause us to wonder – what is that we’re hearing? And how do they do that? The Tippetts seem to focus more on the sound effects, taking full advantage of extreme dynamic contrasts to generate maximum impact. The Silesians seem more intent upon discovering musical elements hidden within these sounds, and thus are often more mysterious – inviting the listener to join them in experiencing something unimaginable. And extraordinary. 

Both are superbly played and recorded and both are equally compelling. And totally mesmerizing. The observations I’ve made are generalizations and probably unintentionally exaggerated and oversimplified to help clarify the differences I hear. But the differences are real. And musically meaningful.

Which do I prefer? It’s difficult to decide and depends on my mood. If I’m acutely interested in details, with more immediacy and vivid storytelling, then it’s the Tippetts. If I’m looking for a more atmospheric experience to lose myself in for a few minutes, I might favor the Silesians. As I write this review, I’m listening to them both, back to back, and continue to hear new things each time. I can only conclude both recordings are simply awesome. And I could not part with either.

In addition to the excellent recorded sound, I enjoyed the booklets from both labels and learned an enormous amount from reading them. The liner notes on Chandos, written by Tim Rutherford-Johnson, were especially informative, providing extensive details about this music, complete with an introduction and in-depth look at each Quartet. His detailing of some of the notations and innovative playing techniques required to play this music is fascinating. For example, Penderecki’s indications for the strings to play col legnosul pontsans vibrato, etc, are actually the “easy” ones! A glance at the scores confirms both Quartets require so many other, completely new techniques that a separate glossary describing them is included. This knowledge allowed me to better appreciate the incredible abilities of these players and understand more fully the musical content.

For instance, the beginning of the Second Quartet calls for the players to whistle while playing. With the Tippetts I wondered if those sounds were string harmonics. But with the Silesians I knew instantly it was humans whistling (in part because they whistle a little more than what Penderecki actually asks for). But they incorporate it musically into the texture along with actual string harmonics which creates an intriguing interplay between the two sounds. Another good example, again in the Second Quartet, is a passage which sounds like a giant mosquito buzzing very near the listener’s ear as played by the Tippetts. With the Silesians, it was less close, less specifically identified as coming from one player or another – “is there a mosquito somewhere in the room?” Checking the score, it is merely a matter of interpretation – all those non-musical markings (wavy lines, etc.), with precious few dynamic indications.

And so it goes, each quartet bringing out different elements of these scores, making for endlessly fascinating listening. The Tippetts continue to excel at dynamic extremes, and create an apprehension and anticipation which are compelling and irresistibly unsettling. Moreover, the precision of bowing of the Tippetts is simply jaw-dropping. On the other hand, the Silesians are, again, more otherworldly, with crisp pizzicatos and sound-effects punctuating the fabric with startling effect. 

Studying the scores is an overwhelmingly fascinating experience. How exactly do musicians actually play what’s on the printed page? To make sense of it all and bring it to life is a mind-boggling wonder to behold. On these recordings, they are so superbly played that I listen in awe – and marvel at the accomplishment of both these groups of players. And at the realism of the recorded sound from both labels. 

I focus on these first two works not only because they are so unique, unimaginable even, but because they are so similar to each other, in brevity and utter absence of tonality, and so dissimilar to the 3rd and 4th. They are comprised of sounds and sound-effects used solely to create atmosphere. Only rarely are actual notes given any importance, especially in the First, and nowhere is there any pitch, much less any hint of melodic inclination. However, in the Second, Penderecki does begin to introduce actual notes and pitches, even utilizing quarter-tones with great effect. 

The Third and Fourth Quartets are entirely different. Here Penderecki enters into a much more mature phase, welcoming melodic invention into his creative process which sounds nothing like his earlier work. And they are remarkable too, in completely different ways.

The Third, written some 40 years (!) after the first two, is much more substantial, lasting 17+ minutes. It is a fascinating combination of the more melodious, but not quite tonal style of the String Trio (see below), plus a tunefulness indicative of Penderecki’s Polish heritage and his childhood exposure to Jewish culture. It is a marvelously varied work, with many mood changes within each section, including a brief waltz and a moving Notturno. The final section incorporates a kolomyika folk melody from the Hutsul region of Galicia, giving it its distinctive flavor. 

The Fourth is short, like the first two, and encapsulates a somewhat bleak viola recitative (not unlike the Clarinet Quartet  – more below), a melodramatic central section, and a return to folk music in its conclusion. 

If the four String Quartets weren’t enough, both of these collections give us something more, each offering a different coupling. The Tippetts give us the String Trio of 1990, while the Silesians are joined by clarinetist Piotr Szymyslik for the Clarinet Quartet of 1993. Both works are remarkably similar, not only in length (about 14 minutes each), but in that their origins are less derived from sound effects but now comprised of notes. They are far from tonal, however, but at least now we can begin to ascertain the genesis of melodic invention.

The Trio is divided into two sections, both rhythmic and energetic, the second of which sounds very much like Bartok. (Ligeti once again comes to mind, this time his First Quartet). The playing of the Tippett Quartet here is more atmospheric than in the earlier works, while still retaining their marvelous dynamic contrasts and incisive articulation. This piece is very much equal in importance and substance to the Quartets.

The Clarinet Quartet is rather similar to the Third String Quartet. The outer movements are desolate and bleak – the first an uninhabited world, the last a contrapuntal exposition reminiscent of Shostakovich. And while all through this disc I admire the Silesians for their silky, wooden string sound (which is often positively ravishing), this clarinetist’s tone is just the opposite – bright and a bit edgy rather than wooden and rounded. It works well enough, but I would be interested in hearing it played with a richer tone, better integrated into the trio of strings, less spotlit by the microphones.

Both works are interesting and important, bridging the earlier and later styles of this composer’s evolution. It is fascinating to consider the works on these recordings span a 60-year compositional progression. My only regret is that both of these releases don’t include both the additional works. Timings would have easily permitted it. But I’m just being nit-picky now.

In closing, I am continually amazed by the supreme accomplishment of today’s string quartets, who have the ability to bring difficult contemporary music to life as never before. As much as I have tried in the past to approach some of this music, it wasn’t until I heard the fabulous Quatuor Hanson playing Ligeti and Dutilleux and the fantastic Tippett Quartet playing Penderecki that I am finally able to begin to understand, fully appreciate and indeed love these incredible works.

​Both of these sets are monumental achievements and magnificent musical triumphs in every conceivable way. They open up a whole new world of musical enlightenment and enrichment. 

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