So very still but moving

After a seemingly interminable wait, we now have a second Gorecki Third. The first Third was a long, somber symphony, written in 1977, that remained cultishly obscure until it was released on a 1992 Nonesuch recording that became a cultural phenomenon. It sold more than a million copies, rose high on the British pop charts and was even sampled by hip-hop bands.

The second Third is a long, somber string quartet of startling, heartbreaking stillness. Sunday night, Kronos Quartet gave the work's West Coast premiere at the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall in Costa Mesa.

"Stillness" may not be quite the right term. Neither is "suspended animation." Maybe "arrested motion" comes closest. Of the quartet's five movements, only the central one has a fast tempo marking, but even it feels as if it isn't quite moving so much as it is levitating.

Inevitably, Gorecki these days brings out the amateur psychologist in a listener. The success of his Third Symphony should have been a composer's dream come true. Subtitled "Symphony of Sorrowful Songs," it contains three luminous, lamenting movements for soprano and orchestra. The texts are mothers' prayer for sons in times of war. The music rises in slow consonant canons; the intensity of beauty overwhelms.

But the symphony's commercial coup apparently overwhelmed the composer. He froze artistically. Commissioned by Kronos, for whom he has written all his string quartet music, the Third Quartet was written in 1994 and '95, just after the height of his fame, and then locked away. One or two small pieces followed, and then for several years he was not heard from at all. In a note to Kronos on the manuscript, he wrote that he didn't know why he continued to resist releasing the score.

At 54 minutes, it is longer than his 14-minute First Quartet from 1988 and the 32-minute Second from 1991 combined. But I suspect the new score has fewer notes in it than even the brief First. The Third Quartet appears to reveal a composer who is no longer grounded, who has lost his anger, his way and even his motivation but who has developed a direct line to angels dancing on the heads of pins.

There has always been an ethereal element to Gorecki's music. One reason for the Third Symphony's popularity was that many listeners found it took them out of their worldly concerns. Sadness turned unearthly and hence no longer sad but inspirational. The Nonesuch recording, which features Dawn Upshaw's incandescent voice, became a kind of chill-out drug.

But Gorecki in his Third Symphony, and even more so in work such as the Second Quartet, also created a powerful sound made up of motifs emphatically repeated like pylons driven into the ground. That base is gone in the Third Quartet. The music is mostly consonant and airy, as if the composer had reached a realm of transcendental insubstantiality.

A friend said she heard in it dance slowed to the point of near motionlessness, but dance still. For me, Gorecki's repetitions are revolutions, like those of planets around a sun, with no purpose beyond being themselves.

Kronos' performance — which was epic, intense and profoundly moving — gave the Third Quartet its awe. We take David Harrington, John Sherba, Hank Dutt and Jeffrey Zeigler for granted; they are a constant presence playing new music, often rocking 'n' rolling. But there is no ensemble like Kronos, and the first half of the concert, devoted to Terry's Riley's "Cusp of Magic," was further proof.

Written for Kronos and the magisterial pipa player Wu Man, this quintet from 2004 has become a regular Kronos feature (they played it last season at Royce Hall). Riley can be no less the dreamer than Gorecki, and, as an active advocate for peace, he is not without his dark side when he contemplates in his music America's adventures in the Middle East.

But "Cusp of Magic," with its lullabies and entrancing Chinese songs and sweet disposition, brims with joy. On Sunday, again featuring Wu Man, it was the indispensable yin to Gorecki's yang. The evening was complete.

mark.swed@latimes.com

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