Penderecki’s ‘First Violin Concerto’ was premiered
in April 1977 by Isaac Stern. It caused something of an outcry in new
music circles due to its reliance on traditional forms and harmonies.
It must be said, however, that although its musical language isn’t difficult,
its emotional language is. Every note of this single movement piece
of over 39 minutes duration is soaked in anguish. At times it feels
as though Penderecki is trying to distil the essence of his most successful
avant-garde work, the frightening and moving ‘Threnody for the victims
of Hiroshima’ into a more conventional and easily assimilated musical
framework. It is surely not too fanciful to suggest that the composer’s
boyhood experiences in wartime Poland shaped this piece; menacing march
rhythms pervade the texture and the shrillness and violence of the many
climaxes are suggestive of the machinery of war.
Comparisons with other composers are difficult with
such a heartfelt piece, although Shostakovich and Bruckner spring to
mind; a more meaningful comparison might be with the paintings of Kitaj,
semi-abstract musings on the nature of pain and suffering. Formally
the piece seems to me rather episodic, although the expressive power
of Penderecki’s orchestration is never in doubt.
The Second Concerto, titled Metamorphosen was
dedicated to Anne-Sophie Mütter and first performed by the Central
German Radio Orchestra shortly after its completion in 1995. Although
it explores similar territory to the First Concerto the more vibrant
rhythms and cleaner orchestration make the work more appealing to the
casual listener. Some traditionalists however may feel that a single
movement work of such a length would need a strong structure to prevent
it collapsing under its own weight and indeed the piece may seem to
some ears not to sustain its length. The title "Metamorphosen"
refers to the way themes gradually develop and change as the piece progresses;
this process is used in both concertos, and its success is a matter
of personal opinion. Admirers of this composer, of whom there are of
course many, will no doubt be thrilled to find such a generously filled
disc at such a bargain price and they need have no worries about either
performance or sound quality, both of which are excellent.
Soloists Konstanty Kulka in the First Concerto and
Chee-Yun in the Second both deal superbly with the challenges posed
by these complex and challenging works.