would expect Krzysztof Penderecki to draw the best out of his
musicians in his own work, especially after an impressive track
record in this field in the past. I listened to the re-release
of his recordings
for EMI from the 1970s, and these are still impressive even
when compared with this new digital recording.
the Capriccio, the earlier recording is a tad more compact
at 11:38, but easily equals the new recording in terms of drama.
The soloist is set closer with the new recording, so that the
balance is less natural in terms of what you might experience
in the concert hall, but in all other respects this new recording
is an improvement. The detail in terms of instrumentation comes
through far more clearly – percussion of course, but all of
those other sliding and quivering exotic sounds from all quarters,
like the bowed saw for instance, are revealed in all their glory.
I’ll still listen to the earlier recording for its chilling
atmosphere, but recommend the new one for sheer clarity.
Natura Sonoris No.2 is
an early 1970s chiller classic, continuing and developing some
of the textures in Capriccio in a purely orchestral context.
Again comparing the EMI recording, made when the piece was brand
new, this new Dux version has more immediacy and clarity, but
more importantly shows up some of the ways in which Penderecki’s
view on the work has changed over the years. There are some
dynamic differences in the balance here and there, and those
dry, choking clusters in the strings in the beginning are taken
more slowly and with less of a sense of murderous drama. Strangely,
even though the new recording is a good two minutes shorter
than the old one, the new version seems slower: listening to
the cacophonous brass and strings beyond four minutes into the
piece, there is a greater sense of drive and urgency in the
old EMI version. Where Penderecki saves time in the new recording
is by compressing the longer stretches of static atmosphere
earlier in the work, which are less of a novelty these days.
Either way, the old analogue tape coped badly with those fireman’s
bells and the sheer weight of noise from the massed brass and
percussion in this work, making this new recording a welcome
alternative. The sliding brass beyond 5:00, with its conversational
interruptions, is a definite goose-bump moment, and the final
held note under that scraped percussion is like a small chorus
of drowned angels.
more recent style, in any case since the ultra-romanticism of
the early 1980s, has in some way proved even more controversial
than his earlier avant-gardism, and the Piano Concerto
does sit rather strangely with its ghostly forebears on this
disc. The work was written after a great deal of procrastination
by the composer, who “refrained from writing a piano concerto
for many years because I was afraid [of the] many excellent
concertos written in the 20th century.” The final
push came from a commission from New York, with Emanuel Ax and
the Philadelphia Orchestra in mind as performers. Started in
June 2001, the work was originally to have followed the Capriccio
design, but after the terrorist attacks of September 2001
the light-hearted nature of such a title seemed inappropriate.
The work took on a more serious character, and the non-religious
title ‘resurrection’, which refers to mankind’s universal desire
for renewal and re-birth after disaster and crisis.
style of the work is linked to Penderecki’s 1996 seventh Symphony,
Seven Gates of Jerusalem, but also integrates
the grand stylistic gestures of Mahler and some of the romanticism
of the great piano composers such as Rachmaninov. At over 30
minutes in duration it certainly has a symphonic scale, and
with no intermission between any of the sections the uninterrupted
musical narrative is a ride of considerable intensity. If I
have any problem with this work – and I do consider it a substantial
masterpiece – it is the difficulty one has in establishing an
individual character to either the source, the composer, or
the intended message – the expressive aim. I don’t claim that
all music should have immediate clarity in either of these aspects,
but I doubt if I have any colleagues even in the musical fraternity
who would be able to put their finger on what is going on here.
I don’t mean this in a technical sense – the work is about as
difficult to listen to as Shostakovich’s 1st Symphony;
but in terms of where, what, why, huh?
booklet notes may have something of an answer to give. ‘The
piano part is treated in a very original way in as much as…
it explores first and foremost the piano’s percussive qualities.’
Yes, but not ‘in contrast to the major works of the piano literature’
as far as the 20th century goes: composers since
Bartók have been doing little else. In any case, there is plenty
of running up and down the keyboard in fairly standard romantic
style, so I don’t feel any great claims can be made for originality
in the solo part. More telling is that ‘the sound idiom employed
by the composer harks back to the great symphonic tradition
of the turn on the 19th century’. This push-me-pull-you
treatment results in something akin to Saint-Saëns and Busoni
fighting under a duvet, with the eclectic spirit of John Adams
and the hothouse mania of Scriabin acting as referees. One of
the central elements in the piece is a chorale, whose introduction
at 7:10 is sheer White-Christmas Hollywood. The whole thing
quasi-concludes with a final massive statement of this main
chorale ‘theme’ at 28:17, with recorded bells kicking in at
29:23 which are as corny as hell. The only thing we miss at
this point is a few blasts from a cannon, and the spirit of
Tchaikovsky might be appeased as well: the title ‘resurrection’
might as well stand for a ‘revival’ of this way of expressing
triumph of the human spirit over destructive forces.
Despite all this the
Piano Concerto is strangely compelling – one of those works
you know you’ll be playing again, if only to remind yourself of
the strange conundrums it proposes – was it really like
that? Yes, it really is, and one has to stand in awe of
the way in which Penderecki rather audaciously and uniquely creates
a new work out of such a gallimaufry of antique recipes. I do
however wonder quite what place it will ultimately take in the
canon of 21st century musical art.