Recorded at Skywalker Ranch, Nicasio, California.
For this Elektra/Nonesuch release, the Kronos Quartet interprets Witold Lutoslawski's 1964 "String Quartet," an uncommonly difficult piece since the four musicians are commanded to play their parts ad lib, as if they were alone. Lutoslawski was influenced by the random procedures of John Cage, but he also wished to maintain dramatic structure, so "String Quartet" includes rigidity in time measures. The balance between freedom and structure provides for a surprisingly appealing recording.
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Witold Lutoslawski's String Quartet contains all that we have come to expect from Western music. Its musical gestures are distinctly expressive. The work unfolds through time with a compelling logic and clear dramatic form. The details are rich and interesting. Like all urgent music, it seems to leap off the page.
But open the score: it doesn't look like traditional music, and it hardly seems possible meaningful sound could come jumping off those pages. Unlike a traditional ensemble score, in which the composer defines the music through the interdependence of the parts, here the composer asks each performer to play his part ad lib as if alone. There are neither common bar lines nor a common rhythmic pulse. Yet the result does not sound free and unstructured, but uncommonly coherent.
That such issues as freedom and control should concern Lutoslawski, who was born in Warsaw in 1913, is understandable. As Poland's most prominent postwar composer, he has been forced to spend most of his professional life skirting government control of the arts. An urbane and cultivated man, Lutoslawski managed to do this by remaining politically aloof, developing a music of abstraction. But it is a deceptive abstraction, in which the composer manipulates stunning instrumental timbres into a language of intensely expressive gestures.
Lutoslawski's voice, however, grew directly out of a more overtly illustrative style. Feeling the need to communicate to the politically overrun people of Poland following World War II, his early works were folk-inspired in a Bartokian way. But he also found that to be an increasingly restrictive approach. In the mid-Fifties, as Lutoslawski himself sought to maintain his own free voice within a restrictive Communist society, he also began to seek ways to allow the individual performers opportunity for more individual freedom within the confines of ensemble playing.
His. solution came from John Cage, the American avant-garde composer who had begun making music using chance procedures in the early Fifties. Lutoslawski did not accept Cage's methods uncate-gorically, wanting to maintain a fixed dramatic structure. And so the inclusion of chance into his work proved less a radical change of direction than a technique to further extend the expressive nature of his musical language. Collective ad lib music offered Lutoslawski a means for maintaining the richness of solo playing-playing that the composer calls "supple, free and individual"-in ensemble music.
The String Quartet, written in 1964, is central to this development. In it the performers are free, but only within the limitations of time brackets. What is remarkable in the piece, however, is the way Lutoslawski has managed to create phrases that have a dramatic immediacy to their shapes.
Music is often metaphor, and one can hear Lutoslawski's quartet as representation of heroic death and transfiguration, of personal crisis and resolution, or even sexual climax and spent passion. One can hear in it modern science-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.
Mark Swed (November 1990)