I've been listening to a lot of Penderecki lately and was excited to see this collection on Capriccio, which includes not only all 4 String Quartets but also the Clarinet Quartet and the String Trio too! Over 70 minutes of music. I was also excited to explore a group new to me, the Polish Meccore String Quartet.
With all this music spanning a decades-long career, I do wish it were presented in chronological order. It's a frequent complaint of mine and this one is particularly exasperating. It starts with a little piece from 1988, followed by the Clarinet Quartet from 1993. And when we finally do get to the String Quartets (beginning in 1960), they aren't even in numbered order! As laid out on this CD, they appear as follows: #1, #3, #2, #4. And I just don't understand why.
I suppose I should just get used to it because it seems to happen all the time. Fortunately, I'm getting proficient at programming my CD player and can listen to them in any order I want. So that problem is easily solved!
Listening to the music, I found the Meccore Quartet to be highly accomplished and expressive, and the recorded sound up close and immediate (typical of the Capriccio house sound). My main interest was with the String Quartets, so I started there.
I initially thought the First was a little too matter-of-fact and missing some of the otherworldly atmosphere heard in the best recordings. However, consulting the score, I noticed that entire opening section, which calls for fingers thumping against the neck of the instruments, is marked ff sempre. Many groups vary the dynamics here, thus allowing them to create seemingly random sounds from the legno battuto (to strike with the wooden part of the bow) and the screeching of the very highest notes to jump out shockingly at the listener. While that can be more interesting to listen to, the Meccore follow the score more faithfully. So perhaps what I'm hearing as being "matter-of-fact" may actually be precisely what Penderecki asks for. Or maybe it's just a matter of interpretation.
I also thought the Second wasn't quite wild enough - at first. If dynamic extremes are not quite as shockingly pronounced as in some performances, they are plenty vigorous as we venture into that dissonant central section.
Throughout both works, rather than focusing solely on sheer atmosphere, this group emphasizes the variety of unimaginable tonal sounds - which are positively eerie. For example, the passage near the beginning of the Second which requires the players to whistle while playing harmonics is awesome. And in the central section of the First, howling sounds from bowing on the tail piece are downright creepy. The close-up perspective, though, does somewhat diminish the otherworldly atmosphere heard in some recordings, but this marvelous group makes up for it with variety of sounds.
The Third and Fourth Quartets are completely different. Based on folk tunes, they have a tonal approachability which suits this group especially well. They excel at bringing out all the variety of moods and characterization in these works, while the immediacy of the recorded sound enhances the richness of their blend. Both pieces prominently feature the viola, and this group's violist, Michal Bryla, displays a gloriously textured, wooden tone.
Only in the String Trio did I feel a bit more bite to bow on string would have been beneficial. And tempos seem just a bit on the slow side.
However, the Clarinet Quartet is the real highlight of this program. It is absolutely marvelous as played here, with clarinetist Jan Jakub Bokun joining the group. His bright (but not too bright), round and expressive tone is perfectly suited to the piece, especially in the desolate landscape of the opening Notturno, where his acapella solo at the beginning is simply beautiful, and then positively gorgeous when joined a few bars later by the viola in a very moving duet. The recording engineer must garner some of the credit for masterfully balancing the two players perfectly as equals. (And seriously, have we ever heard more luxuriant viola sound?) The central movements are captivating and over much too quickly before the finale Abschied ("Departure") returns us to the bleak soundworld heard before. This is one of Penderecki's most richly Romantic creations (coming somewhat later in his career) and these musicians bring out its very best.
Taken as a whole, this is a terrific collection. It is very well played and recorded and I couldn't be happier that it includes so much music on one CD. Among my favorite recordings of the 4 Quartets, the Tippett Quartet on Naxos adds only the Trio; while the Silesian Quartet on Chandos plays the Clarinet Quartet but omits the Trio. And on Dux, the DAFO String Quartet gives us both of the extras, but it was recorded in 2010 - before the 4th String Quartet was even composed! So that is missing from theirs.
To have all this music together at last is a real plus in favor of the Capriccio. This is essential listening for all admirers of Penderecki's string chamber music.