Indeed, after experiencing "Already it is dusk", the first String Quartet (Op. 62), time has passed very quickly and one is left feeling that the composer has aimed to, and succeeded in, conveying something very precise, very finely sifted - and without your understanding quite why. In its quarter of an hour, just the right amount of musical material has led the listener to draw just the right conclusions about Gorecki's feelings when he wrote the piece and to marvel at his success in conveying them. That's because the Royals have understood the piece so well; and not been tempted for a minute to allow its surface contrasts - chiefly of tempo and dynamic - to be emphasized at the expense of substance.
The Second Quartet, "Quasi una fantasia" dates from the same period but is over twice as long - and contains greater variety. As is to be inferred from that title, it too acknowledges the influence of Beethoven; surely Shostakovich's bleak quartet writing must have affected Górecki. This second quartet, though, is less uncompromising than the first. While retaining some of the latter's insistences, it boasts greater variety - though there is a great deal of ostinato writing - especially in the fourth and final movement - despite a preponderance of writing in unison. The markings also give a taste of what to expect: Deciso; Energico; Marcatissimo sempre; Molto espressivo; Molto appassionato; Sempre con grande passione; Molto marcato! This can be hard for players to interpret intelligently if all they have at their disposal is unbridled sawing. The Royals, for all their adherence to such instructions, never for a second allow such extremes to cloud or distort Gorecki's music. They are as aware of the arch and development of each movement, and the four movements in their places as part of the second quartet's statement as a whole, as they are of the need to promote precision and clarity in any one passage. And seem more bent on both than on spurious 'atmosphere' for atmosphere's sake.
The Third Quartet - it, too, has a title from a poem (..."songs are sung"): a lamentation - is equally lugubrious. In five movements this time, it's but a little more relaxed. Slower and more downbeat, it needs to be listened to very carefully for its subtleties to be revealed. The third movement - the only fast one; and perhaps the one which most shows such influences as those of Shostakovich again - is more jovial and illustrates the side of Gorecki's character which responded to fun and lightheartedness. Once more, it would not have been enough for the players to drone and drown in woe. The content of the music, not its atmosphere, was always needed to convey what the composer wanted.
The Royals' precision, attention to detail, refusal to linger or over-play anything and adeptness with nuance make this, too, a highly accomplished interpretation. It's as sure of foot as it is rich in well-digested interpretative strengths. The quartet also successfully suggests the slow but now discernible progression that Gorecki's chamber writing made over the almost 20 years during which he completed these three works. Although, when taken as a whole, they represent a new phase in the composer's writing, they too matured. Lastly, despite the musical influences mentioned, the Royals make this music Gorecki's own; and very enjoyable too.
This music's idiom, its preoccupations and unrelenting emphasis on implied severity and vehemence (though never musical shortcuts to achieve these) will be familiar to anyone who knows Gorecki's famous Third Symphony. But the slimmer and more fervent (though not so outwardly lachrymose) idiom of the string quartet needs finely-tuned and technically very sensitive touches from string players as exposed as the Royals are. They live up to the challenge admirably.