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Krzysztof PENDERECKI (b. 1933)
Utrenja ('Morning Prayer') (1969-1971)
Iwona Hossa (soprano); Agnieszka Rehlis (mezzo); Piotr Kusiewicz (tenor); Piotr Nowacki (bass); Gennady Bezzubenkov (bass)
Warsaw Philharmonic Choir; Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra/Antoni Wit
rec. 24-27, 30 September, 3-4 December 2008, Warsaw Philharmonic Concert Hall, Warsaw, Poland. DDD
NAXOS 8.572031 [74:50]
Experience Classicsonline

The Naxos Penderecki series has produced some fine discs, among them a thrilling Te Deum and Hymne an den heiligen Daniel (review). As before Antoni Wit and his Warsaw orchestra are the driving force. I won't pretend Utrenja is an easy listen - it isn't - and although it's not uniformly inspired it is one of the composer's key works. As such, it really does deserve a wider audience.

The 1960s proved decisive for Penderecki, who moved out of the shadow of Boulez and Webern and into a more individual sound-world. His big break came with the St Luke Passion (1963-1966), the first of a religious triptych that includes the two-part Utrenja, written four years later. The latter, focusing on the Orthodox liturgy for Holy Saturday, is an astonishing mix of musical styles, beginning with a somewhat traditional a cappella chorus. Even here there is an edge to the music that points towards the extreme choral and instrumental writing that follows. Only occasionally does the composer revert to a simple, Orthodox choral style, these passages appearing like shafts of light in the gloom.

The brooding Songs of Praise shatters any sense of calm with sudden orchestral spikes and glissandi. Add to that fearsomely difficult passages for the soloists - sample those strange upward slides, for instance - and you have the measure of this piece. Indeed, Utrenja is much closer to the uncompromising sound-world of Magnificat (1973-1974) than it is to the later Te Deum (1978), especially in its stratospheric choral writing. As ever, the Warsaw choir are incisive, their interjections and cries emphasised by a rather strident recording. That said, there is weight when it's required, as in Canon of the Holy Saturday, Song 9, with its grinding brass and louring timps.

The male soloists sing fervently throughout, although that tell-tale Slavonic wobble is never far away. By way of contrast there is some gloriously dark, 'olden-style', choral singing in Irmologion (Stichira). That Penderecki trademark, the long glissando, is also used very effectively here, drawing the music upwards, as if on a swirl of incense. It's an extraordinary effect, which culminates in an awe-inspiring choral and instrumental epiphany. Not an easy listen by any means, but a spine-tingling one nonetheless.

If anything, Part II - premiered a year later - is even more challenging. The repetitive percussion and declamatory choral writing of Gospel may seem a little plainer than anything we've heard thus far, although there is an unmistakable air of ecstasy in the next movement, Stichira. Again, Penderecki is thoroughly unconventional, tapping into the inherent mysticism of this Orthodox celebration and releasing a flood of raw energy in the process. Traditionalists will baulk at such liberties, but one could argue that this is the Paschal ceremony stripped - like the altar - to its bare essentials. This gaunt music sounds all the more radical when juxtaposed with snatches of radiant choral singing.

Stichira ends with a Threnody-like passage for chorus and orchestra, marred by some very unsteady contributions from the male soloists. Those upward figures surely need a smoothness of line, a security of tone, that's entirely lacking at this point. There's nothing like exposed vocal writing to expose vocal imperfections, and this is no exception. Indeed, I'm not convinced Part II is as consistently inspired - or as well prepared and executed - as Part I, and the squally singing of tenor Piotr Kusiewicz doesn't help. Thankfully, the mezzo, Agnieszka Rehlis, is much steadier.

Wit's overworked percussionists have a field day in Psalm with Troparion, although I did wonder whether Penderecki's impossible vocal and instrumental demands had finally pushed the performers beyond their capabilities. Bells and voices add to the mêlée, Wit all but overwhelmed by this panoply of sound. I suspect some listeners may find this movement a challenge too far. Stay with it, though, even if you have to grit your teeth at the insanely wide vibrato on display in Passover Canon, Songs 1 and 3, because there is some respite in Kontakion and Ikos, where we return to the ancient choral bedrock that underpins this holiest of celebrations.

The final movement, Passover Canon, fragments, begins with a blaze - some might say shriek - of ecstasy that will have you leaping for the volume control. Arresting at first, this device now sounds a little overworked, as if the composer is stretching his material further than it will comfortably go. That said, Utrenja modulates to something a little more serene, not to say sombre, before fading to a profound silence. I was left feeling Utrenja doesn't capture the ear or engage the mind as successfully as the Te Deum, whose more accessible style - and scale - will surely appeal to a much wider audience.

Forty years on, Utrenja is still a challenge, even for those well disposed to this composer's music. Regrettably, the listening experience is made more taxing by an aggressive recording and some dire singing from the soloists. Trouble is, if you want a recording of Utrenja you don't have much choice - there's only one other version in the catalogue. Oh, and what about texts? Naxos usually provide them in the booklet or online; either way, they are mandatory for unfamiliar works such as this.

A welcome release, even if it doesn't do justice to this epic score.

Dan Morgan

Part I, 'The Entombment of Christ'
I. Troparion [6:13]
II. Songs of Praise [16:38]
III. Irmos [6:36]
IV. Canon of the Holy Saturday, Song 9 [2:13]
V. Irmologion (Stichira) [8:33]
Part II, 'The Resurrection of Christ'
I. The Gospel [2:35]
II. Stichira [6:39]
III. Psalm with Troparion [8:22]
IV. Passover Canon, Songs 1 and 3 [3:43]
V. Passover Canon, Song 8 [2:50]
VI. Kontakion [2:41]
VII. Ikos [1:43]
VIII. Passover Canon, fragments [6:04] 



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