PENDERECKI: String Quartets Nos. 1-3. Der unterbrochene Gedanke [The Broken Thought]. String Trio. Quartet for Clarinet & Strings / Quatuor Molinari; André Moisan, cl / Atma Classique ACD2 2736
I have to admit that I’ve never been much of a fan of Penderecki’s music. I generally find it confused and pointlessly ugly and, to be honest, the first string quartet presented here, from 1960, fits into that category. This isn’t music; this is sonic garbage.
But, as the old sports cliché goes, I “hung with ‘em” and just kept on listening. Although the second quartet from 1968 is also pretty ugly, it was more coherent to my ears than the first—in fact, it almost sounded like an instrumental version of a portion of Ligeti’s Requiem—using microtonalism rather than just a splattering of random pizzicato notes. Mind you, it wasn’t great music, but it was far more interesting than the first piece. And one thing you have to say about Quatuor Molinari, they play this music with passion and drive.
With Der unterbrochene Gedanke or The Broken Thought we jump ahead 20 years, to 1988, and by this time Penderecki was writing actual music and not just sound effects…and, it turns out, he really did know how to compose music after all! Whadda ya know?!? This is an excellent piece, modern but coherent, with an excellent sense of drama. So if you do spring for this CD, I suggest that you start here, because this is where the music gets good.
The String Trio from 1990 opens with sharp, edgy chords, leading one to think that we are headed backwards to the ‘60s, but this turns out to be a mere prelude for a surprisingly lyrical first movement with the opening theme played by the cello. The edgy chords return, but then we hear a quicker, more rhythmic theme, also played by the cello, which leads into a passionate solo by the violinist. This, then, is a string trio in which the strings play mostly solo lines, only coming together on occasion. This is very interesting music and, again, well played.
Even more surprisingly, the Clarinet Quartet from 1993 opens with a sinuous, lyrical line played by the clarinetist, mostly in his low register, and when the strings enter it is to surround the clarinet with a warm cushion of sound. The second-movement “Scherzo,” though comprised of fast passages, do not put an emphasis on edginess but rather on energy and a forward momentum, and here the clarinet plays odd but somewhat jolly jagged lines. Near the end of this movement the music slows down and blends perfectly into the opening of the “Larghetto,” a very lyrical movement with a fascinating, moving theme. This is better than just “good” music; this is a masterpiece.
And then, we end with the third String Quartet, subtitled “Leaves from an Unwritten Diary,” from 2008. This, too, is a masterpiece, using ostinato rhythms in the first movement but being clever enough to vary the beat ever-so-slightly as the music moves along. Here, Penderecki throws in some edgy passages, but they are blended into the following music and developed, so they’re not just a series of noxious sounds hanging in the air. He really did mature as a composer as he got older.
There is no question but that Quatuor Molinari plays this music splendidly. My recommendation, however, is that you obtain the album as a download and just skip tracks 1 and 2, which contain the first two quartets. You’ll be glad you did.
—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley
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