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Krzysztof PENDERECKI (b.1933)
CD 1
Anaklasis (1959)* [5:58]
Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima (1959-61) [9:54]
Fonogrammi (1961) [6:40]
De natura sonoris No.1 (1966) [7:15]
Capriccio for violin and orchestra (1967) [11:38]
Canticum canticorum salomonis (1970) [16:47]
De natura sonoris No.2 (1971) [9:03]
The Dream of Jacob (1974) [7:31]
CD 2
Emanationen (1961) [6:48]
Partita [19:15]
Cello Concerto (1972) [14:45]
Symphony* (1973) [31:14]
Krakow Philharmonic Choir (Canticum), Polish Radio National Symphony Orchestra, London Symphony Orchestra*
Wanda Wiłkomirska (violin - Capriccio), Felicja Blumental (harpsichord - Partita), Siegfried Palm (cello - Concerto)
Krzysztof Penderecki (conductor)
rec. July 1973, No.1 Studio, Abbey Road, London (Anaklasis and Symphony), February 1975, Katowice, Poland (Threnody, De natura sonoris 1, Canticum, Jacob), April and May 1972, Studio of Polskie Radio, Katowice, Poland (Fonogrammi, Capriccio, De natura sonoris 2, Emanationen, Partita, Cello Concerto).
EMI CLASSICS GEMINI 381 5082 [75:44 + 72:30]

Catching the acoustic leakage through my nice open-backed headphones while I was listening to Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima, my better half said, “gawd, that’s an awful noise – sounds like something from Dr. Who!” Much worse in fact, for there are no rubber monsters here. The skin is peeled back, the burnt screaming flesh exposed like no other piece of music you’ve ever heard or could imagine.

Aspiring composers like me were drawn like flies to the revolutionary music coming from Poland in the 1960s and 1970s. Anaklasis was one of the works which introduced Penderecki’s uncompromising style to Western ears, and nearly 50 years on it still sounds original and challenging. When you get to know these pieces they become as familiar as Picasso, and returning to some of the works we performed as students at the R.A.M., like Canticum canticorum salomonis, is like greeting old friends. Penderecki was a highly communicative conductor – I always remember him instructing the poor percussionists who had to learn how to blow ocarinas: ‘It must sound like the ’uman voice’ he said, and after that they knew exactly what to do. Unforgettably, he shook like a bear during some of those seemingly chaotic moments of aleatoric freedom, and then we all knew what to do. As conductor of all of the performances on these discs, you can be sure the performances are pretty much definitive. Canticum is a wonderful piece, full of extraordinary colour and effects which give me goose-bumps every time.

The De natura sonoris works are like an inverse pair – No.1 is the more expressionist one, full of gothic darkness and almost wilful creepiness. No.2 approaches the semantics of electronic music, with a singing saw, sawing textures and fields of sound which resolve, dissolve, gather and rise up like a distressed column by Brancusi. You can listen to this work as if it was a poem, but you couldn’t recreate it by writing one. The Dream of Jacob further refines some of the techniques used, making for an even more coherent piece whose logic, from the deep breaths of the low brass clusters in the opening to the wild string and brass climaxes, is that of high romanticism.

Moving on to the second disc, and we start with Emanationen - two string orchestras, one of which is tuned a minor second higher than the other. This again was one of the pieces by which Penderecki stormed into fame in Europe, but there are so many glissandi and movings about here and there that the effect is not as striking as you might imagine. This might have to do with the recorded performance however, which seems a little more lacklustre than some of the others – it was already over 12 years old by the time this recording was made, and therefore maybe a bit old-hat. The Partita for harpsichord and orchestra is interesting in its ostinati and sound-field textures, effects which had their influence on composers such as Ligeti. An electric guitar also gives an up-to-date feel to this piece, though the recording betrays heavy spot-miking for this instrument and the soloist, which gives rise to some odd perspectives here and there.

The Cello Concerto, now due the suffix ‘No.1’ as the second was premiered by Rostropovich in 1983, is full of fascinating action and mad moments from the orchestra, which is supplemented will all kinds of exotic instruments. Penderecki was one of those Polish composers who helped the trend for large percussion sections, but he uses his instruments with panache. The ear and the imagination are taken on an incredible journey, sometimes moving, sometimes confusing, sometimes filled with wild and rocky adventure. Soloist Siegfried Palm lays into the part with theatrical eloquence, and the work sounds every bit as fresh and modern as it must have in 1972.

The final work in this set, the Symphony (No.1) of 1973 is massive, theatrical, and tinged with some of that religious awe which affects Penderecki’s later work, the piece having apparently been inspired by a pair of angels on an arch in Ravenna. Surprising, sometimes beautifully understated resolutions and subtle orchestral effects prevent this work from becoming overblown and pompously self-conscious, and, while the early Penderecki fingerprints are expanded and projected onto a much larger canvas there are more than a few hints of later developments, and these fingerprints are such distinctive and powerful ones that they can take being blown-up, even though the symphonic structure may be hard to grasp. Like the shorter works, this piece has a poetry and a dark theatricality which opens the mind to regions rarely explored: you might not want to go here often, but work like this is like a weighty and well-respected novel – one you always keep on your shelves and acknowledge every time you pass by.

Throughout both of these discs the analogue recordings have been well preserved and re-mastered, although there are some moments when a little woolly opaqueness betrays needles pushing into that dangerous red zone. The booklet notes are fine as far as they go. Both orchestras play out of their skins, and almost all of these recordings possess an intensity which rival any current catalogue performances. Disc 1 of this pair appeared as part of the ‘Matrix 5’ series in 1994, but the renewed availability of these landmark recordings has to be welcomed. Naxos is the immediate competitor to this kind of budget re-issue, and while their often remarkable and excellent recordings and performances fill a much needed gap in the record shop shelves, these premiere recordings conducted by the composer have something that bit special to offer. The music won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but if you fancy something a little stronger than slop water then this is the real thing.

Dominy Clements


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