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Krzysztof PENDERECKI (b. 1933)
1. Symphony No.2 ‘Christmas Symphony’ (1978-79) [34:48]
2. Te Deum (1978) [38:35]
3. Lacrimosa (1980) [5:04]
4. Magnificat (1973-74) [45:27]
5. Kanon (1962) [9:46]
Jadwiga Gadulanka (soprano) (2, 3); Ewa Podles (mezzo) (2); Wiesław Ochman (tenor) (2); Andrzej Hiolski (baritone) (2)
Soloists from the Kraków Philharmonic Chorus/Adam Palka (4)
Boys’ Chorus from the Kraków Philharmonic Chorus/Bronislawa Wietrzny (4)
Polish Radio Chorus of Kraków/Stanisław Krawczynski and Tadeusz Dobrzanski (2 & 4)
Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra of Kraków (1-3); Polish Radio National Symphony Orchestra (4); Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra (5)/Krzysztof Penderecki
rec.  March 1983 (1-3), January-February 1975 (4), April-May 1972 (5), Polish Radio and TV Studios, Katowice, Poland. ADD. No texts provided
EMI CLASSICS GEMINI 2176692 [73:23 + 60:18] 


Experience Classicsonline

EMI really do go for reissues in a big way. Remember their cleverly titled twofer series Double Forte? Well, for some reason they have decided to repackage these discs as Geminis. I’m not complaining, especially when the reissues include this all-Penderecki programme, but Naxos have gone one better with their own Penderecki series, all of it newly recorded. The latter, as yet incomplete, includes a fine recording of the Te Deum under Antoni Wit (see review).

On Christmas Eve 1979 Penderecki abandoned the idea of a four- or five-movement symphony in favour of a single-movement work that would quote the Christmas carol Silent Night. For those who know the composer’s more avant-garde pieces, such as the celebrated Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima, this Christmas Symphony may come as a surprise. From the distant drum-rolls at the start to that first string tune it’s clear this is a warmly expressive work which, if anything, hints at late Shostakovich, especially in the way the music builds to the first climax at 2:40. Thereafter the symphony speaks with its own, unmistakable accent – just listen to that broad theme that surfaces at 4:43, thrillingly underpinned by the timps and brass.

This is just one of many memorable moments in this beguiling work. Thankfully the recording is warm and spacious – not a given with some of EMI’s reissues – and that adds enormously to one’s enjoyment of this symphony. In particular the strings have plenty of bloom, the percussion is well caught and the bass is firmly focused. And although composers aren’t always the best interpreters of their own work Penderecki shapes the music most persuasively, finding plenty of light and shade along the way. Even in the tuttis there’s no sign of the composer in monumental mode – just sample the peroration that begins at 21:02 – although there are hints of a more angular orchestral style at times. There are no hard edges anywhere; indeed, this  piece will surely appeal to those looking for an unthreatening entrée to Penderecki’s work.

The Te Deum, written to celebrate the anointment of Pope John Paul II, is divided into three parts, but you wouldn’t know that from the EMI disc, which only has one cue and no accompanying texts. The Naxos recording cues each part separately and provides the all-important words. In some ways the more measured EMI performance is preferable to Wit’s which, although it’s powerfully projected, sounds episodic at times.. And yes the opening timp rolls don’t sound quite so menacing under Penderecki’s but his singers are generally more cleanly focused than Wit’s.

Recorded in 1983 this Te Deum has plenty of detail – listen out for the bells at 9:09 – as well as a sense of scale, but Wit is undeniably dramatic in the craggier second part, with its martial bass drum and febrile singing. By contrast Penderecki’s own reading can sound under-characterised at this point, although I feel his remains the more subtle of the two performances. He finds telling details in the score, not to mention a more natural ebb and flow. As for the quartet of soloists neither is ideal, although Penderecki’s tenor, Wiesław Ochman, is the steadiest and most characterful of them all.

In the hushed choral opening to Part 3 Wit’s singers are placed a long way back, as if heard from afar, which is certainly effective; Penderecki’s choir is also fairly recessed but they are the more intense and moving of the two. Again it’s Wit who makes the most of the great choral and orchestral outbursts, as if underlining Penderecki’s avant-garde credentials. I suppose it depends what you want from this Te Deum, raw energy or something a little cooler but no less dramatic. I’m inclined to go with the latter, and I suspect most new listeners will prefer it too.

The 1980s marked a turning point in Poland’s history, with the eventual collapse of the country’s Communist Party in 1989. As early as 1980 the newly formed Solidarity trade union commissioned Penderecki to write a piece commemorating the 10th anniversary of the Gdansk uprising, in which 28 people died. As Peter Avis explains in his liner notes the Lacrimosa was recorded and played through loudspeakers at the unveiling of a memorial to the dead. The work was then premiered in Kraków later that day, Antoni Wit leading the Polish Radio orchestra and chorus. One can only imagine the effect this austerely beautiful piece must have had on the assembled mourners. Soprano Jadwiga Gadulanka, the soprano soloist then and now, sings the words of the Requiem sequence with heartfelt eloquence. The chorus are similarly affecting. A haunting work that’s well worth hearing.

A world away from Polish politics is another religious setting, the Magnificat, written to celebrate the 1200th anniversary of the cathedral in Salzburg, Austria. The words of the Virgin Mary – ‘My soul doth magnify the Lord’ – are set to music that looks unflinchingly towards Penderecki’s avant-garde style. It begins with an extraordinary shawm-like call that is soon augmented by the shimmer of percussion and the entry of the chorus. The orchestral glissandi, familiar from his earlier works, are sparingly – but effectively – used. Penderecki cleverly splices ancient and modern, so the strong liturgical element – and that elusive sense of timelessness – are never subsumed by his compositional processes.

The choral writing is similarly individual, spiralling upwards and fragmenting, sometimes more of a wail than a chant. The orchestral accompaniment is kept to a bare minimum, mostly declamatory, the massed voices bright and clear. The second part is darker, with almost inaudible drum beats and what seems like a wordless choir in the far distance. It’s highly atmospheric, and very different to the Passacaglia, with its tolling orchestral shards and choral glissandi. This is much spikier than anything we’ve heard thus far and some may find Penderecki’s swooping and swooning choral style a challenge too far. That said, it’s an oddly compelling work, with antiphonal effects thrown in for good measure.

Part 4 opens with some lovely sustained choral singing that grows into a long, steady glissando before fading to silence. It’s one of many theatrical effects in this work that never seem to distract from the thrust of the piece as a whole. Yes, this final part may be a little short on inspiration but the choral ‘Glorias’ are certainly glorious. As I’ve remarked before the success of these collections depends on good programming, and although the Magnificat may not have the broad appeal of the Christmas Symphony it does at least show the composer at his most rigorous. As for the sound it’s pretty good for 1975, although the extreme treble is inclined to glare and the more concentrated choral sections do sound rather fierce.

Kanon, the earliest composition on this set, is also the most obviously experimental. The pulsing primitivism of the piece is hard to resist but I was disconcerted when the right channel disappeared and then the left, only to return later. This ping-pong stereophony must have been fun in the early days but now it just sounds contrived.

An interesting collection, offering both accessible and more difficult works at a price that should encourage curious listeners. Penderecki fans will probably have the earlier Double Forte set and will no doubt lament the lack of decent liner notes – and texts – in both. Come on EMI, if Naxos can do it at this price point why can’t you?

Dan Morgan


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