When Penderecki renounced the avant garde and all
its works in the mid-1970s and threw himself like a penitent
into the arms of romanticism, the cries of betrayed acolytes
echoed around the musical world. Since then the composer has
been the subject of much vituperation and execration from his
former admirers. The appearance of each new work from him has
been greeted with opprobrium from certain zealots with whom
the behaviour of the apostate still clearly rankles.
As yet, to judge by the earliest work on this CD, they should
not have been altogether surprised. Written for the soundtrack
of the film The manuscript found at Saragossa (not
a title that screams ‘box office’), the Three pieces in
old style are pure mock-Mozart, not even seen through the
twentieth century lens of neo-classicism but through a sensibility
that seems purely late-romantic. They are attractive pastiches,
but come as a shock from the composer who not long before had
completed the Threnody for the victims of Hiroshima.
These pieces open this disc devoted to Penderecki’s music for
string orchestra - with occasional wind soloists. The other
work here from the 1960s is the Capriccio for oboe
and strings, which Richard Whitehouse’s informative booklet
note refers to as evidence of the composer’s “lighter side”
even in his avant garde days. Well, it all depends
how you define the “lighter side”. It is certainly very jaunty,
not one thinks intended to be taken terribly seriously, but
it exploits to the full the whole lexicon of oboe technique
and range in a dazzling kaleidoscope of ideas and bravura
passages. Thankfully it never enters the realm of overblown
chords, key clicks and other more or less unmusical devices
so beloved of more recent ‘experimental’ composers. It was written
for Heinz Holliger. At the time he was probably one of the very
few oboists in the world who could have played it. Nowadays
players are made of sterner stuff, and the admirable Jean-Louis
Capezzali shows no apparent difficulty in coping with everything
the composer throws at him.
The Intermezzo from eight years later comes from the
years immediately before Penderecki abandoned his earlier style,
and in it frankly the cracks are already beginning to show.
We are presented with a gallery of all the usual avant garde
string devices: divided strings microtones apart from each other,
every sort of glissando and harmonic technique in the
book, fast running pizzicato passages falling over
each other – and all totally bereft of meaning. Penderecki had
been doing this sort of thing for far too long to find anything
new to say; and it is much to his credit that, unlike those
of his colleagues who either proceeded to tread the same ground
over and over again, or else took off into realms ever more
abstruse and unfathomable, he decided to break entirely new
ground and seek a reconciliation with the evolutionary trends
of earlier music.
The two Sinfoniettas are both transcriptions of other
works: the first derives from the String Trio of 1991
and the second from the Clarinet Quintet of 1993.
Neither seems to add very much to their original chamber scoring,
and to be honest it is difficult to summon up much enthusiasm
for either of them. The original small scale of the music extends
to these larger versions too, and despite excellent clarinet
playing in the Second Sinfonietta from Artur Pachlewski,
Penderecki’s inspiration remains obstinately earthbound throughout.
It is pieces like this which lead one to recognise a degree
of truth in the accusations of the composer’s detractors that
he has never been able to recapture the imagination that he
displayed in his earlier work, were it not for the existence
of pieces like the Serenade to prove the contrary.
For the Serenade, a work of pure neo-romanticism, is
also very beautiful. The opening Passacaglia leads
to a heartfelt Larghetto with soulful textures leading
in turn to an impassioned climax.
The orchestral playing under Wit is every bit as good as one
would expect from his superb continuing survey of the music
of Penderecki, which has brought to our notice so many works
that are otherwise unrecorded and unperformed.
Paul Corfield Godfrey