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Krzystof PENDERECKI (b.1933)
St. Luke Passion (1962)
Izabella Klosinska, soprano, Adam Kruszewski, baritone, Romuald Tesarowicz, bass, Krzystof Kolberger, evangelist, Jaroslaw Malanowicz, organ
Warsaw Boys Choir
Warsaw National Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra/Antoni Wit
Recorded at the Warsaw Philharmonic Hall on 31st August and 1st-3rd and 6th-7th September 2002
NAXOS 8.557149 [76:24]


Naxos have recently been making a speciality of excellent new recordings of modern choral masterpieces. Alsop’s Chichester Psalms is a striking example, as was before that Tonus Peregrinus’ version of Pärt’s St. John Passion (which, as I am one of the soloists, modesty should prevent me mentioning, but sadly hasn’t done!). Now we have a magnificent new version of Penderecki’s great St.Luke Passion of 1962. This is a particularly timely issue; the work has had a number of recordings, but they have all proved less than entirely satisfactory.

And it is a masterpiece; Penderecki employs much the same forces as are to be found in the Bach Passions – large chorus, often sub-divided, orchestra and soloists – but subjects them to the full range of avant garde usage. The choir hiss, giggle, whistle, even sing sometimes, and their music is full of glissandi and complex dissonant clusters, while the members the huge orchestra are often asked to play in free improvisatory style. Penderecki’s Evangelist declaims his text (which is in Latin all the way through, the composer sensibly favouring this religious lingua franca over his native Polish), and Krzystof Kolberger injects just the right amount of drama and emotion into his delivery, varying the pace with great skill. The other soloists are superb, too; Izabella Klosinska has a typical Polish soprano voice – rich and powerful in its lower range, ringingly dramatic at the top. She projects her part with great feeling, and is outstanding in the near hysteria of, for example, her ‘Domine’ solo (track 4). She also has the measure of these very difficult notes, and sings with stunning accuracy, which sets her apart from, for example, Sigune von Osten on the composer’s own Argo recording. Klosinska’s Crux fidelis (track 18 in Part II), her incisive and intense tone contrasting with the hollow sound of the alto flute, is one of the supreme moments in the whole performance. Adam Kruszewski sings with beautiful simplicity in the role of Christ, and Romuald Tesarowicz is a commanding and affecting bass.

The Warsaw choir is simply exceptional; they pull off all the choral ‘special effects’ with confidence and aplomb, and manage to produce tone of great beauty when appropriate, for example in the extended Stabat Mater section which occupies a crucial place in Part II. The ‘crowd’ choruses are spine-chilling, the recording allowing one to hear all the layers of detail while maintaining an honest sense of perspective. Very often, these outbursts of violence are followed by quiet, nearly immobile contemplative choruses, such as ‘Ierusalem’ on track 6 in Part I. How uniquely this work emphasises the shame, the trauma of the Easter story.

Yet that shame must be balanced by hope, if the message is not to be traduced. The most talked-about aspect of the work are the two colossal major chords which come out of nowhere – one at the end of the Stabat Mater, echoed by another, this time backed up by the full orchestra, at the end of the whole work. These are truly shocking, and it’s hard to describe their effect; the nearest I can get is to say that it resembles groping round in the dark for some hours, only to be suddenly bathed in the most intense sunlight without warning – disconcerting, but unforgettable!

Conductor Antoni Wit paces the whole work with consummate skill, and draws very fine playing from the Warsaw Philharmonic all the way through, and especially in passages such as their deeply expressive introduction to the final chorus. At such moments, Penderecki edges away from the avant garde, and proclaims his spiritual kinship with the greatest Eastern European artist of that time, Dmitri Shostakovich.

I could go on for some time about the many, many stunning and revelatory moments in this performance; but I won’t, you’ll be glad to know! This is a ‘must hear’, though, and a ‘must buy’ too, especially at this ridiculous price. The recording captures everything breathtakingly well, from the lightest choral whisper to the great slashes of organ sound that erupt in the big choruses; from the ethereal clusters of string harmonics to the explosive grunting of contrabassoon. There’s no doubt that the recording benefits from being made in a modern concert hall (Warsaw Philharmonic Hall) rather than in the cavernous depths of Katowice Cathedral, as with the Argo CD. It has to be said – Naxos have done it again! They deserve our thanks and congratulations for this fully realised version of a great modern masterpiece.

Gwyn Parry-Jones


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