Thursday 26 September 2013

Terrific performances of string quartets by Krzysztof Meyer from the Wieniawski String Quartet on a new release from Naxos

Krzysztof Meyer (b.1943) was born in Kraków, Poland and as a boy he played piano and organ, studying composition with Stanisław Wiechowicz in 1954. He graduated from the Chopin Music High School in Krakow before studying composition with Krzysztof Penderecki at the Music Academy. Between 1964 and 1968 he studied in France for several months of the year with Nadia Boulanger and in Warsaw he became a private pupil of Witold Lutosławski.

Meyer was a professor of music theory at the Krakow Music Academy from 1975 until 1987 and, from 1987 to his retirement in 2008, was professor of composition at the Music Academy in Cologne. He was President of the Polish Composers’ Union from 1985 until 1989 and is a member of the Free Academy of the Arts in Mannheim. Meyer knew Dmitri Shostakovich personally and wrote a biography about the composer.

Krzysztof Meyer’s musical roots are in East European neoclassicism, though in the 1960’s he was fascinated with the avant-garde not only as a composer, but as a member of "MW2 Ensemble", with whom he performed experimental pieces, typical for the sixties, in Poland and in some West European countries.

He is firmly convinced that the time has come again to think about a new kind of melodic and harmonic language. The melodic primordial cell as the germ for the formal design of the individual work is characteristic of his music.

His works to date include operas, vocal works, seven symphonies, numerous concertos, chamber music including thirteen string quartets and works for solo instruments.

His Symphony No. 1 was his first work to be performed, in 1964, in Kraków. In 1965, while still a student, he made his debut at the ‘Warsaw Autumn’, as the youngest composer in the Festival’s history with his String Quartet No. 1.

It is his String Quartet No. 1, Op.8 (1963) that together with his String Quartets No’s 2, 3 and 4 have been issued on a new release from Naxos with the Wieniawski String Quartet


Meyer’s String Quartet No.1, Op.8 (1963) is very much the kind of work that one would expect of a Polish composer from the 1960’s that was interested in the avant-garde. The opening Tesi (Thesis) has curious pizzicato phrases and bow taps before, slowly, little motifs appear across the strings. Before long a rhythmic fast passage descends to slow sonorous chords before the movement develops through a series of wild passages. A glissando passage from the lower strings leads to a quieter ruminative conclusion.  Antitesi (antithesis) has little outbursts that populate this second movement to which a melody tries to join but the outbursts continue over a bass harmony. The third and final movement, Sintesi (summary) opens with an undulating theme on the cello before all the players enter playing glissando.  Outbursts occur, at first vying with one another then combining to form a more blended sound. The music resumes a frantic sound before falling to tentative phrases exquisitely played by the Wieniawski Quartet, with such fine detail. Richer chords lead to the coda.

Meyer’s String Quartet No.2, op.23 (1969) is in one movement and opens with sudden chords from all players before the material is developed into a densely layered theme. The opening chords are repeated before the densely layered theme returns. The music then fragments into individual pizzicato and col legno phrases before quietening to a tentative passage with more pizzicato and harmonics. The music broadens, though still a little tentative, before developing into a dense passage of string textures becoming quite intense and full of angst. This dissipates into a passage reminiscent of the opening phrases. Eventually there arrives a long held note with little outbursts before a lovely melody appears quite unexpectedly. It tries to trip itself up but nevertheless continues. Eventually it does fragment but slowly turns into a quiet harmony to end.

There is some terrific playing from the Wieniawski Quartet, great precision, ensemble and dynamics.

String Quartet No.3, Op.27 (1971) has its three movements simply marked I, II and III. I. opens with a sudden pizzicato outburst, by now making one assume that this is a hallmark of Meyer’s style. However, this is soon dispelled by an outpouring of fast, forward moving, swirling strings before quietening to a slower passage that seems to have an underlying melody hovering behind it. There are, again, pizzicato interruptions before a more flowing theme but the pizzicato can’t be held back and returns in an intricate motif. The contrast between the more flowing theme and the pizzicato continues before a sonorous string passage arrives, underlined by a cello played pizzicato in its lower register. The fast moving swirling theme returns before harmonic phrases quietly appear at the end.

The second movement, II, follows on in much the same vein, with a theme that is always seemingly combating pizzicato phrases in constantly changing sounds and textures.  Movement III opens with a vibrant unison outpouring with a real sense of forward momentum and direction. There is more densely packed music to follow, with various instruments providing their own little details and motifs. A repeated pizzicato phrase in unison heralds a series of motifs, slowly increasing in volume, as though rising from below. Eventually a mournful theme slowly arises, surely the finest moment in this quartet that continues to the end, seeming to achieve a kind of resolution.

There is an impassioned opening Preludio interrotto to String Quartet No.4, Op.33 (1974) before Meyer’s favoured pizzicato interrupts. This tension between the impassioned theme and pizzicato playing continues until a tentative passage is introduced, opening on the cello and leading to a richer section, growing in intensity in a tremendously dramatic passage that pulls the listener along before falling to a quieter version of the same theme then fragmenting to nothing. The opening densely rich music suddenly reappears to end the movement.

The second movement, Ostinato, opens with a single pizzicato chord before a little motif is plucked in the sparest of gestures. Fuller pizzicato chords interrupt in this ruminating opening with some first rate playing from the Wieniawski Quartet. Longer bowed phrases appear against pizzicato notes leading to a broad melody, still with little pizzicato interruptions. Quicker, more incisive phrases appear against the insistent pizzicato notes, becoming increasingly insistent and passionate, at times reminiscent of Bartok. Gradually the music quietens to a deep ruminative melody to end. Pizzicato from the cello opens the third movement, Elegia e conclusion, contrasting with pizzicato on the other strings. The cello then plays a bowed melody, full of passion and feeling against little pizzicato notes. The melody builds across the quartet in a mournful outpouring that is very beautiful but eventually the music falls to spare pizzicato notes. Towards the end there is an impassioned outburst for full quartet before the music grows sparer and fades out in the highest registers of the strings.

Whilst retaining a distinctive style, Meyer is shown to have progressed some distance between his first and fourth quartets. If any composers come to mind as influences it must be those of the Second Viennese School and Bartok yet Meyer has a distinctive voice. The Wieniawski String Quartet give terrific performances of these works and the recording is first rate with excellent booklet notes.

Whilst the earlier quartets are fascinating works, it is the fourth quartet that makes me want to investigate the later quartets already issued on three individual Naxos CDs.


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