Wycinanki is the Polish art of paper cutting. In the words of composer Andrzej Panufnik, it’s a rustic art, consisting of ‘symmetrical designs of magical abstract beauty and naive charm’. A Google image search will provide countless examples that shows what he meant.

Panufnik titled his third string quartet Wycinanki, and it was composed for the London International String Quartet Competition and premiered in 1991, a few months before his death.

In his programme note, Panufnik wrote that this work is made up of five contrasted short studies, as a sonic equivalent to these small craft designs. But the conceptual link to Wycinanki was balanced by the needs of the competition, in which different aspects of string playing were tested, from dynamic control to rhythmic precision. And as his daughter Roxanna wrote in the notes to a recording, each quartet only had 24 hours to prepare their performance.

The resulting piece is compact – a short parade of highly contrasted movements, each operating by its own incisive logic. The final and longest of these studies is especially memorable, an Adagio sostenuto written as a continuous arch encompassing the fullest range of dynamics from pp to ff and back again. Its rich textures, clashing dissonances and yawning glissandos make it impressively poignant.

I’ve been listening on Apple Music (Brodksy Quartet) and YouTube (Tippett Quartet).

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