Polish Contemporary composer Henryk Mikołaj Górecki [1933–2010] wrote three string quartets. The Second Quartet, titled Quasi una Fantasia, is in four movements.
A throbbing cello opens the work, with occasional long violin tones sustaining a bleak mood. This persists for some time with the violin mostly adding colour. After several minutes, the violin becomes more salient and probes in a stronger manner. The music changes slowly with the violin now joined by a second voice offering up extremely sparse phrases, similar to the previous introduction of the first violin. A change to a harmonised version of the pulsing cello is briefly heard, before the texture is returned to a violin and cello, this time without pulsing – a series of four sparse ascending chords concludes. You could probably call this a dirge but I am interested to see how it sits within the structure of the work.
The next movement features a much stronger chordal pulse, with one violin in a low register expressing furtive phrases, based around a simple motif. This violin becomes more expansive and brings on a more melodic section, mostly in a higher register although it does spend some further time in the lower register. An extended pause brings on two funereal chords before a return to the movement opening. Now we have a variation on the basic melodic material which leads into a section of several sharp stops between episodes of the unrelenting rhythm, some of which are also quite brief. An extended pause leads into further funereal chords with a violin musing sparingly within the harmonies. This precious mood continues until a faded ending occurs.
Rhythm is eschewed for the third movement which begins with a series of long chords and a stark violin line which gradually becomes insistent, leading the accompaniment on to a chaotic period. A change in mood has the violins sounding jagged in their attack. A new section unfolds with two violins in a simple harmonised motif which gives way to a series of sparse passages where a gentle, but constantly changing harmony is heard. This period is all about ensemble chords with little or no melodic development occurring. The movement offers up a complete distraction from the previous energised movements.
The finale is again pulsing, but there is a sense of more melody here together with changes in the harmonised rhythms. A stop moves into a cello driven passage, with the cello moving through a series of rhythmic motifs, sometimes supported by other voicings and sometimes solo. This is frantic music, although sporadic brief moments of peace are to be heard. Similar to the previous movement there is a series of intensely rhythmic passages which feature only incremental change. The tension is eventually resolved, revealing a period of gentle chords with no tempo until the cello introduces a most subtle pulse. This too, slowly dissipates and the music drifts to a faded, placid conclusion.
I have always been quite ambivalent about Górecki’s quartets, in fact I hadn’t listened to the first two for about 15 years. I came across the Third recently and after an initial period of excitement, this long work ultimately did not feel satisfying to me, a feeling that grew stronger as I listened to it intently over a couple of days. The work that I have just discussed also feels a little unsatisfying to me. Having said that, I know that the first two quartets are quite popular, and I am sure that many readers would enjoy their measured, non-confronting but powerful modernism. Maybe on another day, I would have different thoughts about them too.
The review CD, String Quartets 1, 2: Already It Is Dusk: Quasi Una Fantasia, performed by the Kronos Quartet, on the Nonesuch label, is still freely available, 25 years after its release. There are also several other versions on Amazon US and UK.
Górecki fans should also investigate … songs are sung, the Third Quartet, a strange work but one that carries his distinctive style to great lengths.
Listenability: I know he is popular but I just didn’t appreciate it…