Thursday, 11 September 2014

Panufnik and Lutoslawski quartets

Panufnik and Lutoslawski quartets
Panufnik String Quartets, Lutoslawski String Quartet; Tippett Quartet; Naxos
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Sep 2 2014
Star rating: 4.0

Quartets by two remarkable Polish 20th century contemporaries

This new disc from the Tippett Quartet has quartets from two of the major voices in 20th century music, both Polish. Andrzej Panufnik's three quartets are paired with Lutoslawski's string quartet in a programme which reflects the intense seriousness of the development of the string quartet form in the 20th century. The Tippett Quartet is John Mills and Jeremy Isaac (violins), Lydia Lowndes-Northcott (viola) and Bozidar Vukotic (cello). Read my interview with two members of the quartet on this blog.

Panufnik's quartets date from a relatively short period, 15 years. Prior to the 1970's he had now written much chamber music. The First String Quartet was written for the Aeolian String Quartet and premiered in 1976. The Second String Quartet 'Messages' was written in 1980 for the North Wales Music Festival and premiered by the Gabrieli String Quartet. His last quartet is among his final works, commissioned for the London International String Quartet Competition in 1991, being premiered by the winning quartet, the Wihan Quartet.

The three form a remarkably coherent group, with each having a sense of closely reasoned argument. Panufnik uses the four members of the quartet as participants in a continuous series of dialogues, discussions and arguments. This is sober, essential music and requires (and receives) intensity and concentration from the players. Each quartet is in a single, continuous movement - no space for pause or pondering in these arguments.

The First String Quartet is in three movements, which play continuously. It all starts with an austerely dramatic single musical line, which is in fact a dialogue between instruments. This develops into flowing lines with the harmonies containing Panufnik's familiar bitter-sweet major/minor mode. You feel that an intense, sober drama is being worked out. In fact the opening line is a tone row, and the whole movements is based on this and there is a strong sense of being taken on a journey.

The Second String Quartet is in one single 20 minute movement. Its title arises from an incident when he was a child and listened to the 'music' from telegraph poles vibrating. There is a feeling of a steady progression of melodic ideas between parts, accompanied by sustained harmonies. The tightly worked motivic development has a remarkable coherence. It requires tense concentration from the players and the sense of argument has the feeling of dialectic.

The Third String Quartet is also in a single movement, lasting just over 10 minutes. The opening has a rather static texture which again develops into a flowing, well wrought dialogue. Musical material goes up high into the violins top range, before the beautifully considered dialogue resumes. This continues through various string styles, such as pizzicato, furious marcato and finally hush sustained passages in an intensely moving major/minor conclusion.

Witold Lutoslawski wrote his String Quartet in 1964. It came after his ground-breaking Jeux venetiens. The quartet was premiered by the LaSalle Quartet in Stockholm. It is in two movements, the shorter first leading to the longer second but the two form a coherent whole. The shorter first movement has wispy fragments passing between the players, there are edgy moments and each time the movement tries to cohere is breaks down and like the preceding Panufnik quartet Lutoslawski works through a variety of textures. Seamlessly this flows into the second movement, where things get rather more bad tempered and angry. Pizzicato takes the volume level down, but not the intensity. At one point all hell breaks loose, to be replaced by quiet (but not calm) and finally lyric heterephony.

What is not immediately apparent on first listening, is that like much of Lutoslawski's work at the time, much of the writing is aleatoric. Fully notated sections lead into ones where the details are decided by the players. So the results are not so much a picture of an ideal performance, as a snapshot of one of a number of possibilities.

This is technically very difficult music given in performances of great musicality which bring out the music's essential drama.The Tippett Quartet gives coherent and confident performances, combining technical skill with a feeling for the two composers serious sense of dialectic. I have to confess that I found the Panufnik rather more approachable and easier to apprehend. I would like to say that all the works on this disc are stunning, but this seems the wrong word for such sober, closely argued music. Buy it and think.

Andrzej Panufnik (1914 - 1991) - String Quartet No. 1 (1976) [19.24]
Andrzej Panufnik (1914 - 1991) - String Quartet No. 2 'Messages' (1980) [21.23]
Andrzej Panufnik (1914 - 1991) - String Quartet No. 3 'Wycinanki' (1990) [11.38]
Witold Lutoslawski (1913 - 1994) - String Quartet (1964) [26.54]
Tippett Quartet (John Mills, violin 1, Jeremy Isaac, violin 2, Lydia Lowndes-Northcott, viola, Bozidar Vukotic, cello)
Recorded at Sidney Sussex College Cambridge, 4-5 February 2013, 17 June 2013
NAXOS 8.573164 1 CD [79.39]

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