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Lutoslawski’s Quartet for Our Time

<i> Herbert Glass is a regular contributor to Calendar. </i>

Witold Lutoslawski wrote his only String Quartet (to date) in 1964. That this splendidly knotty work has begun to receive widespread recognition may be attributable to its performance by glamorous ensembles not primarily identified with contemporary music--such as the Guarneri, Amadeus and Alban Berg quartets--as well as by the specialists.

A recording or two has always been around since the late ‘60s, but now the score is positively blossoming on CD, with three recently released versions to join the two already in the catalogue--a remarkable number for uncompromisingly serious music in a modern idiom that courts the intelligent listener.

But having multiple versions does not mean senseless duplication. The Polish composer has guaranteed that no two sets of performers--indeed, no two performances--will sound the same.

Lutoslawski leaves to the discretion of the performer(s) how parts of his work should sound, as regards both notes and rhythms. The present recordings, then, offer not only three interpretations but also three different editions of the score.

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The one likely to attract the most attention is that by the Kronos Quartet (Elektra Nonesuch 79255). Perhaps these people are marketing wizards, with their funky threads and otherwise carefully calculated stage persona, but they also play the bejeezus out of this music.

Kronos conceives the work as a never-slackening exercise in fiery, forthright emotionalism and dramatic intensity.

In the “Main Movement,” as Lutoslawski titles the second and longer of its two parts, where most of the do-your-own-thing opportunities are present (the first violinist is nonetheless instructed when to bring the ensemble back home and back together), the Kronos quantitatively has more to say than the competition, perhaps because the players are more accustomed to improvising.

These artists consistently engage our attention with their driven yet lush-toned and gorgeously recorded--close, but without harshness--interpretation.

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Whereas Kronos’ sensory assault points up Lutoslawski’s contemporaneity (tough music for a tough world), Austria’s youthful Hagen Quartet draws a different, hardly less-convincing picture from the same set of instructions, projecting, at slower tempos, something darker and more insidious (Deutsche Grammophon 431 686).

The Hagens are most effective in the long funebre section of the Main Movement, where they convey a range of shadings considerably at variance with Kronos’ in-your-face style.

America’s late, lamented LaSalle Quartet, collective godfather to several gutsy groups dedicated to the cause of 20th-Century chamber music and the ensemble that presented the work’s premiere in 1965, returns to the catalogue its 1968 recording (Deutsche Grammophon 423 245, mid-price).

The LaSalles produce neither the thunder and beauty of Kronos nor the subtleties of Hagen. But it is they who most successfully show how the work is put together; they who show us how the composer governs the form of the piece--principally through crucially placed ostinatos--while allowing the players to be free, so to speak. And it is the LaSalles in particular who show us the score’s roots in the Bartok quartets.

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As concerns programs, with Kronos there simply is none. Its Lutoslawski comes alone, as a 24-minute-long CD single, at budget price. Fair enough--and, perhaps, wise marketing strategy.

The LaSalle puts the work into a broader contemporary context, alongside the brief, harrowing 1960 Quartet of Lutoslawski’s countryman Krzysztof Penderecki (also written for the LaSalle), a catalogue of Bartokisms--snapping pizzicatos, col legno midnight tappings, sul ponticello squeals and glissando keenings--the dreamy 1961 Prelude of Toshiro Mayuzumi and the 1950 “String Quartet in Four Parts,” whose composer, John Cage, seems to be instructing his performers to say nothing but to say it with optimum elegance (and not a trace of vibrato).

The Hagen’s large-scale disc mate is the 1954 First Quartet of Gyorgy Ligeti, which will remind no one of his “2001" (the film) clouds-of-sound otherworldliness. Here there’s a good deal of Bartok again, as suggested in Ligeti’s subtitle, “Metamorphoses Nocturnes.” The music, constructed of 17 brief segments, sounds rather familiar, even on first encounter.

The program concludes with Schnittke’s brief “Canon in memoriam I. Stravinsky” of 1971, allowing a good deal of free play for its performers but lacking the sort of clear, distinctive foundation from which Lutoslawski allows his players to launch their flights of fancy.

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POSTSCRIPT: Whereas both DG releases offer program notes intended to help the listener through the complexities of the music, Elektra’s, after some useful generalities, descends to seeming genre parody, with the sort of mystical bull that has become part of the Kronos image and yet is so blessedly lacking in both the music and in Kronos’ playing.

The notes end in this splendiferous burst of babble:

“Lutoslawski’s free-roaming individual parts are like elementary particles that cannot be pinned down in time and space, producing probabilistic force fields instead. But abstract music’s greatest power is its ability to communicate beyond metaphor, Lutoslawski’s meaningful abstraction becoming an eloquent expression of the inexpressible.”

Indubitably, amigo.

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