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Krzysztof PENDERECKI (b.1933)
Violin Sonata No. 1 (1953)
Miniatures (1959)Cadenza for solo viola (1984) Violin Sonata No. 2 (2000)
Ida Bieler (violin); Nina Tichman (piano)
Rec: Konzertgalerie Il Bagno, Burgsteinfurt, June 2003. DDD
NAXOS 8.557253 [55'59"]

This disc of Penderecki's violin works encompasses the earliest piece in his published catalogue and one of his most recent large works. The composer only tidied up the First Sonata for publication in 1990. Its three movements are over in eight minutes, during which the language of Bartók, Hindemith and Shostakovich is never far away. There is barely any sign here of the Penderecki that would emerge only a few years later (and which is most familiar to us today). Nonetheless, this is an engaging piece with its fair share of challenges for both performers, which are well met by Bieler and Tichman. Penderecki himself, who was an accomplished violinist in his youth, played the violin part in the premiere of the piece.

The Three Miniatures from 1959 are Webernian in their language and also in their brevity (four minutes in total), and offer the first hints of Penderecki's later fascination with unorthodox playing techniques - and not just for the violin: the piano plays pizzicato in the third piece. It is difficult to say more about the performance, when it is all over so quickly - but similarly, there is nothing to argue about.

The Cadenza for solo viola is derived from Penderecki's Viola Concerto of 1983; itself a particularly adaptable piece, not only existing in versions for cello or clarinet but also in two different orchestrations. The Cadenza is made up of various passages from the concerto, beginning with the long, rhapsodic solo passage from the opening. As such the piece is highly challenging technically, but also - as we would expect from Penderecki - highly expressive. Bieler succeeds on both counts here.

For me, and I suspect for others, the main attraction on this disc is the premiere recording of the Violin Sonata No. 2, composed in 2000 for Anne-Sophie Mutter (for whom Penderecki also wrote his second violin concerto, 'Metamorphosen'). This is a very substantial work, not so far from the length of the two violin concertos themselves (which are available in excellent recordings on another Naxos disc). Its five movements weigh in at just under 37 minutes. The music itself is an example of Penderecki's current style, where, as in the first sonata, the influences of various late-Romantic and early 20th century composers are clearly apparent. Unlike the earlier piece this is unmistakably Pendereckian. The language will already be familiar to those who are acquainted with other recent works such as the Sextet or Credo: broadly tonal (most of the time), though with plenty of unexpected harmonic movement, extremely chromatic melody, highly polyphonic and rhythmically flexible. This is best seen in the Adagio, the central movement of the sonata and also the longest. This contains some of the most beautiful music Penderecki has written, most notably in one gorgeous passage. That passage appears three times in the movement and ultimately comes to dominate the whole sonata, as it returns in the final 'coda' movement. The Allegro which follows is a real tour-de-force, highly demanding for both players. The piano part is certainly no easier than the violin part, and it makes sense to regard them as equal partners. Overall however, the piece seems to just fall short of some unseen target; it never quite takes off as Penderecki's best music does. Whether this is due to the piece itself or to the performance I am not sure. I suspect a combination of the two, but possibly more the former. Though more than adequate, this performance occasionally feels a little self-conscious and clunky, as though the two players are not quite sure of what to do with the music. Some of Bieler's quiet playing is a little unsteady at times. It would be very interesting to hear a recording by Mutter herself to see how she handles it. But this is definitely worth a listen, whether one is already a fan of this composer or not. Naxos's disc of Penderecki's chamber music, including the wonderful Sextet, would be an obvious next step.

Simon Smith

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