String Quartet No. 3 'Wycinanki' (Paper-Cuts), 1990, 11'
Performers: Silesian String Quartet: Szymon Krzeszowiec - 1st violin, Arkadiusz Kubica - 2nd violin, Łukasz Syrnicki - viola, Piotr Janosik - cello; 2003 Polish Radio Katowice
Andrzej Panufnik’s String Quartet No. 3 was written in the autumn of 1990, after the composer returned from Poland, where he was a guest of honour at the Warsaw Autumn Festival. The composer gave the quarter a Polish title, Wycinanki (Paper-Cuts), emphasising its link to the rustic art of Poland. This is how Panufnik himself wrote about his inspirations:
I still admire the Polish paper-cuts, the unique beauty of which, with their symmetrical design, gave me the idea for the structure of my String Quartet No. 3, the title of which is Wycinanki (Paper-Cuts). The work contains no folk themes or motifs, but I hope that at least to some extent it expresses the ingenuity of the authors of those rustic paper-cuts.The mirror symmetry has been transposed here, in a way, to the language of music; it encompasses three fundamental elements: rhythm, melody and harmony.
The rustic paper-cut inspiration brings to mind Sinfonia Rustica, written over forty years earlier, in which the composer used elements of folklore from the Kurpie region. However, this time folk inspiration is purely formal; there are no quotations of folk melodies in the musical material. Yet once again Panufnik uses here mirror symmetry – most consistently in the fourth movement of the quartet, Presissimo posibile, in which the axis of symmetry makes the movement identical whether played from the beginning to the end or from the end to the beginning.
The whole quartet consists of five short movements (the whole lasts about 11 minutes), differing in nature, highlighting different technical and expressive capabilities of the instruments in a string quartet. The composer stressed that these five parts of his String Quartet No. 3 were like
five paper-cuts from different areas of Poland, strongly contrasted to each other in shape and colour; each one also expressing the hidden character and temperament of the person who designed them.
This contrast may have stemmed from the type of the commission – Panufnik wrote his String Quartet No. 3 for the annual London International String Quartet Competition, in connection with its Silver Jubilee in 1991. It was, therefore, advisable, that the piece show off various technical and expressive capabilities of the string quartet instruments. This was indeed the case, and the character of the various movements was described by the composer in the following manner:
I. Lento moderato – study in the control of volume. The music is written on two planes: a rhythmical canon on the harmonics of the note G only, played vibrato with crescendi and diminuendi (constantly repeating the pattern of piano-forte-piano), superimposed on to a mirrored melodic line performed senza vibrato and sempre pianissimo – without emphasis on any note. Calmness and dynamic precision are paramount.
II. Andantino rubato – a study demonstrating the quartet’s rhythmical flexibility, singing quality of sound and warmth of lyrical expression.
III. Allegretto scherzando – a study in the nuances and variety of pizzicato playing, as well as the accuracy required in producing dynamic 'terraces'. Joyous and dance-like in character.
IV. Prestissimo possibile – a study in precision, vigour, power and technical brilliance. Throughout with furious agitation and utmost urgency.
V. Adagio sostenuto – a study in fullest exploitation of the dynamic range, on the lowest strings.
Structurally, the composition is an arch, starting pianissimo and then going through gradual crescendo to a furious climax, after which the emotions are calmed down and the whole returns to pianissimo.
String Quartet No. 3 was performed for the first time by the winners of the 1991 String Quartet Competition – the Wihan Quartet, on 15 April 1991 at London’s Barbican Centre. The work is dedicated to the composer’s children, Roxanna and Jeremy.