Krzysztof Penderecki’s four numbered string quartets do not trace the course of his creative development anything like as faithfully as, say, the six quartets of Bartók or the five of Elliott Carter map the progress of those composers. A 40-year gap separated the composition of the Second Quartet in 1968 from the Third, an interval broken only by the tiny quartet movement Der unterbrochen Gedanke, written in 1988 as a memorial to Penderecki’s publisher.
None of them is very substantial by the standards of the quartet repertory – the longest, the Third from 2008, lasts 17 minutes, the shortest, the Fourth, just six. But when heard in sequence they do give a sense of the vast stylistic distance that his music travelled between the works that placed Penderecki firmly in the front rank of the European avant garde in the 1960s, such as the Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima, and the St Luke Passion, and the neo-Romanticism of his later music, which was initiated in the mid-1970s with his first violin concerto.
Even by the standards of its time, though, the First Quartet, premiered in 1962, seems a breathtakingly radical piece, one which dissolves the traditional sound world of the string quartet into a welter of pitched and unpitched sounds, using a vast range of effects and playing techniques. The Second Quartet – composed in 1968, when Penderecki was working on his first opera, The Devils of Loudun – may not be so abrasively confrontational as its predecessor, but the contrast with the later works in the Silesian Quartet’s survey is still almost shocking, whether that’s in the four movements of the Third, Blätter eines nicht geschrieben Tagebuches (Leaves from an Unwritten Diary), or the two movements of the Sixth, music that seems to evoke 19th-century models such as Schubert and Brahms as much as earlier 20th-century ones such as Bartók and Shostakovich.
It’s hugely to the credit of the Silesians that they seem just as assured in negotiating the clusters and glissandos of the early quartets as they are in refining the traditional textures and lyrical phrases of the later ones. And as well as the five works for string quartet, they include Penderecki’s 1983 Clarinet Quartet in which they are joined by Piotr Szymyślik; there, if anything, the echoes of Brahms are even more apparent.
This week’s other pick
There’s more 20th-century Polish music from Chandos on the latest recital from violinist Jennifer Pike. The major works in her programme with the pianist Petr Limonov are Karol Szymanowski’s Violin Sonata Op 3 – sometimes sounding disturbingly like Elgar – together with his transcriptions for violin and piano of three Paganini caprices, and the Sonata in D minor by Poldowski, which was the professional name adopted by Irène Régine Wieniawska, daughter of the great 19th-century violinist and composer Henryk Wieniawski. Pike brings real late-Romantic sweep and panache to all those works, as well as to Grażyna Bacewicz’s little solo Caprice, and a tango by Poldowski that closes the disc.