String Quartet No. 3 “Wycinanki” (Paper-cuts)
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 40 years earlier, in which the composer used elements of Polish 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 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 quartet consists of five short movements (the whole lasts about 11 minutes), different in nature and highlighting various technical and expressive capabilities of a string quartet's instruments. The composer stressed that the 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 commission of the piece – Panufnik wrote 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, with the character of the various movements described by the composer in the following manner:
Structurally, the composition is an arch, starting pianissimo then going through gradual crescendo to a furious climax, after which emotions are calmed and the whole returns to pianissimo.
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.