It must have been a strange experience for anyone smitten by the music of Krzysztof Penderecki during the 1960s and early 1970s, falling in love with the bold, abrasive, raw abstract shapes and sound forms unleashed in works such as Emanations (1959), Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima (1960), St Luke Passion (1965), Kosmogonia (1970) and Symphony No. 1 (1973), and then listening in quizzical bemusement from the mid-1970s onward as the composer evidently convinced himself he had been on a road to nowhere, and that what he really needed to be doing was to compose, among other things, all of the song cycles and symphonies that Mahler and Shostakovich never lived long enough to write.
Though i’m of a much later generation to such people, my own first contact with Penderecki was similarly focused on the works from his earliest period (my school, in hindsight rather impressively, had a large stash of his early scores), and i was similarly confused by the composer’s retreat, as i heard it, away from the avant-garde into neo-/post-romanticism. It wasn’t that i didn’t necessarily like his later works – on the contrary, i remember being in raptures after first hearing a recording of the Viola Concerto (1983) – but i couldn’t comprehend why such an exhilarating decade-and-a-half of development had been so swiftly rejected and jettisoned. Epiphanies are strange and radical things – and why is it that, artistically, they invariably seem to lead to sudden shifts towards simplification, and not the other way round? Of course, Penderecki’s shift isn’t exactly the same as, for example, Arvo Pärt’s recoiling into endless primary colour noodling or John Tavener’s regression into esoteric religiobabble, but it’s hard not to regard it as occupying the thinner end of what is ultimately the same timorous wedge.
i’ve been reflecting again on this while spending time with a new disc by the Tippett Quartet, featuring all of Penderecki’s music for string quartet and string trio. Usually, getting a clear sense of the vast turnaround in Penderecki’s musical outlook requires spending time with multiple CDs (six of them, in the case of his symphonies), but this single album provides what is essentially a portrait in microcosm of an entire life’s work, vividly illustrating the composer’s peculiar creative trajectory. It’s helped by the fact that the six works on the disc are arranged in chronological order, featuring two works from each of what can be thought of as the early, mid and late stages of his career.
The early works are Penderecki’s first two String Quartets, composed in 1960 and 1968 respectively. Though separated by eight years, it’s easy to hear them as not merely siblings but articulating a single train of musical thought, with the latter work a sequel of sorts to the former. A small-scale iteration of the composer’s sonorist inclinations, everything in these quartets focuses on behaviour, the combined actions of the four players forming discrete forms, shapes and textures that become the building blocks for the piece. As such, it’s tempting to defocus on detail and concentrate on these blocks and their juxtaposition, though the details are interesting – if only for the fact that, as with his larger-scale explorations of the same idea, their value resides solely in what they contribute to the overall sonic effect.
And what an effect! In these marvellous recordings, the Tippett Quartet offer such close, lucid performances that the greatest extremes of accents and piercingly high notes are absolutely eye-watering (nonetheless: they should definitely be listened to as loud as you possibly dare). Likewise, though, both works’ withdrawals into softer material is conveyed with equal clarity, and the contrast is wonderfully effective. Hearing String Quartet No. 1, so indomitable in its opening minutes, begin first to waver and then, seemingly impossibly, to enter a strange, distant, ethereal plane, is spell-binding. It’s an all-or-nothing attitude that is, if anything, pushed further in String Quartet No. 2, a work that signals its extremes by opening with the biggest accent in chamber music before instantly reducing to almost nothing, a faint whiff of tremors and whistles. While the back and forth between such polarised behavioural attitudes can seem bewildering, the unity of the players throughout provides a consistency that mitigates this somewhat. This is especially so during moments when the quartet forcefully coalesces onto specific pitches, locking onto them and focusing their actions around them, in what are some of the most striking sequences of the piece. In the best sense of the word, there’s something primitive about these early works, one can practically hear Penderecki grappling with the very fundamentals of sound, noise and composition in them (especially No. 2), with a level of aggressive enthusiasm and playfulness that’s almost intimidating and which, over half a century on, still sounds stunningly fresh and inspiring.
There’s then a gap of two decades before the pair of mid-career works, the miniature Der unterbrochene Gedanke (“The interrupted thought”, 1988) and String Trio (1991). Although by this stage Penderecki had already begun down the road leading back to Romanticism, neither of these pieces overtly embraces it to the same degree. Nonetheless, in the wake of the first two quartets, hearing pitches now as part of a melodic / harmonic environment, rather than largely incidental elements within behavioural tapestries, is a huge change – indeed, without knowing otherwise, one would likely assume these were not by the same composer. Der unterbrochene Gedanke has something of the angularity of twelve-tone music, though this subsequently settles into a semi-calmed semi-stasis that, in such a short duration (just 2½ minutes), feels highly enigmatic. If its language occupies a kind of no-man’s land between the future and the past, the String Trio is much more demonstratively lyrical. There’s an echo of the early quartets’ extremes heard in the work’s opening sequence, firing heavy salvos of accents, each of which is followed by a short soliloquy. It’s a bifurcation that typifies the rest of the first movement, in which, despite being marked ‘Allegro molto’, the driving rhythmic energy is continually disrupted by an overwhelming urge to melodically reflect at length. It’s in the second movement that Penderecki finally allows the energy to flow unchecked, with canonically treated counterpoint all in relation to a rigid metric grid, challenged occasionally by small moments of rapidity, ultimately becoming a boisterous dance. Though a little bland it’s nonetheless quite fun.
There’s again a sizeable gap of time – 17 years – before the final two works on the disc, Penderecki’s last two string quartets (presumable the String Trio was therefore the one and only occasion he wrote for that grouping). Whereas the previous gap illustrated a shift from an avant-garde to a more neutral, albeit traditionally-minded mode of expression, this time the music is immediately located in a consciously retrospective musical language, directly evoking (post-)Romanticism. At nearly 17 minutes’ duration, String Quartet No. 3 (2008) is his longest, and while the language is a long way from the first two quartets, there’s a semblance of connection to be found (if this isn’t grasping at straws) in the contrasts that define the work’s episodic structure. Subtitled “Leaves from an Unwritten Diary”, the music evidently taps into personal and nostalgic elements, evoking dances and folk tunes. Especially striking is its penultimate episode, a muted sequence of immense tenderness – the Tippett Quartet really outdo themselves here – that more than anything else interrupts (and almost makes one forget) the otherwise upbeat attitude. The short String Quartet No. 4 (2016) is even more entrenched in Romantic stylings, to the extent that, remembering how this album began, it seems genuinely weird that we’ve ended up at such a place as this. The folk allusions in its second movement, without an iota of irony, seem twee, and there are more than a few hints of Shostakovich’s Piano Trio No. 2 later on.
The question the album begs is: which version of Penderecki sounds the most authentic, the most honest? i said before that i don’t necessarily dislike his later, “post-epiphany” Romantic-focused works, though i have always found myself wondering to what extent this act of attempting to go back in time and rekindle generic musical attitudes, manners and idioms can be considered genuine. Or perhaps it’s the early, avant-garde works that weren’t genuine, merely the product of a young composer trying out some brash experiments, vainly trying to escape a deeper urge to write altogether more conventional music. Either way, when i listen to Emanations, or Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima, or St Luke Passion, or Kosmogonia, or Symphony No. 1 – or, in this case, String Quartet No. 1 and No. 2, i’m bowled over afresh by their ingenuity, their courage, their fantastic conception of a new way of creating and structuring musical material, their dauntless vision of the future. Much as i may like and appreciate some of his later work, there’s simply no way it can be described in the same way.
Released last week on Naxos, Penderecki’s Complete Music for String Quartet & String Trio is available on CD and download.