This is a compelling addition to the already impressive series of Naxos CDs devoted to the music of one of Europe's most important living composers. These two substantial works by Krzysztof Penderecki date from the early days of the period where he was, in his own words, "saved from the avant-garde snare of formalism by a return to tradition". In other words, any listener not enamoured of the post-war hardcore European modernism in which Penderecki more than dabbled - as his renowned Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima or the notorious De Natura Sonoris I and Fluorescences testify - can safely read on.
Nevertheless, neither the Viola nor the Second Cello Concerto can be construed as especially easy listening. The music is a heady mixture of neo-Romanticism and early modernist elements, employing a language that both Shostakovich and Bartók would have recognised, yet going beyond the relatively mainstream idiom of his 'Christmas' Symphony. In character both works are certainly darksome, a sense of menace never far off - perhaps a reflection of difficult times in communist Poland. The bleak, eerie strings-only opening of the Second Cello Concerto is particularly memorable: the work was written for and premiered by Mstislav Rostropovich and is as relentlessly Cimmerian as any Penderecki, or any other composer for that matter, has written. Confrontational, multi-climactic and superbly scored, this is one of Penderecki's key works. The Viola Concerto is notably shorter and less spectacular, but is nevertheless stylish and accessible, providing also a convenient route into the sterner challenges of the Cello Concerto.
Guided by the expert but still underrated Antoni Wit, the excellent Warsaw Philharmonic give surely award-winning accounts of these demanding scores. The Russian soloists are majestic too: intuitive, expressive and virtuosic. This is Grigori Zhislin's first recording for Naxos, but he knows the Viola Concerto very well by now: a friend of Penderecki's, he gave the Russian premiere of the composer's Violin Concerto, and then took up the viola at Penderecki's request in order to be able to give the premiere, a quarter of a century ago, of his new Viola Concerto! Some may recall Tatjana Vassiljeva's only other recording for Naxos, her 'Cello Recital' (8.555762) almost a decade ago, on which she performed the Sonatas of Britten and Debussy among other works. Naxos released that in their occasional 'Laureate Series', in which they showcase award-winning newcomers. The surprise is that it took them so many years to re-record someone of Vassiljeva's great talent.
Sound quality is very good. The booklet notes are informative, albeit focused on a step-by-step guide to the music. Despite the short running time, for anyone new to Penderecki, but perhaps familiar with Shostakovich's symphonies and concertos, this disc is an ideal place to begin what should be a thrilling exploration.
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