Krzysztof PENDERECKI (b.1933)
The Symphonies and other Orchestral Works
Symphony No.11 (1973) [30:27]
Symphony No.2 1 Christmas (1980) [34:25]
Symphony No.3 1 (1988-1995) [44:24]
Symphony No.4 1 Adagio (1989) [30:42]
Symphony No.5 1 (1992) [37:37]
Symphony No.7 Seven Gates of Jerusalem2, 3 (1996) [60:47]
Symphony No.8 Lieder der Vergänglichkeit2, 4 (2005) [36:28]
Aus den Psalmen Davids (1958) 2 [10:55]
Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima for 52 Strings1 (1960) [8:56]
Fluorescences for orchestra1 (1961) [14:52]
Dies Irae2, 5 (1967) [25:22]
De Natura Sonoris II for Orchestra1 (1971) [8:59]
Olga Pasichnyk3; Aga Mikolaj3; Micaela Kaune4 (sopranos); Agnieszka Rehlis4; Ewa Marciniec3; Anna Lubanska5 (mezzos); Wieslaw Ochman3; Ryszard Minkiewicz5 (tenors); Wojtek Drabowicz4 (baritone); Jaroslàw Brek5 (bass-baritone); Romuald Tesarowicz3 (bass); Boris Carmeli3 (narrator)
National Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra (Katowice)/Antoni Wit 1; The Warsaw National Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra/Antoni Wit 2
rec. Grzegorz Fitelberg Concert Hall, Katowice, Poland, 16 September (De Natura); 28-29 September (Symphony No.3); 27 October (Threnody); November 1998 (Fluorescences); 17-18 May (Symphony No.5); 25-26 June (Symphony No.1); 25-27 August (Symphony No.2); 8-10 September 1999 (Symphony No.4); Warsaw, Philharmonic Hall Poland: 18-20 November 2003 (Symphony No.7); 8, 9, 11 March (Symphony No.8); 30-31 August (Dies Irae); 27, 29 November 2006 (Aus den Psalmen)
NAXOS 8.505231 [5 CDs: 77:25 + 68:06 + 65:14 + 60:47 + 72:45]
Sometimes it can be very rewarding to be presented with a tranche of music by a major composer that you know not at all. That has proved to be resoundingly the case with this five disc set of “orchestral” works by Krzysztof Penderecki. I use the inverted commas advisedly since two of the symphonies are really major choral/vocal works to which the composer has almost arbitrarily appended the title ‘Symphony’. Indeed in the case of the Seventh Symphony this occurred only after its premiere as an oratorio. As this is a review of the five disc set which includes all Penderecki’s completed symphonies to date I propose reviewing them in symphonic rather than disc order. Aside, from anything else I found, as a listener new to this repertoire, it was informative and interesting to chart Penderecki’s development in the 32 years covered by the seven main works.
Before considering individual works a few other umbrella comments. All the performances are conducted by Antoni Wit who aside from being a conductor of exceptional breadth and skill also studied composition with Penderecki. I have no idea what Wit’s own compositions are like but that fact alone must assure the listener that here is an interpreter with a close and profound understanding of what makes the composer ‘tick’.
Wit conducts two orchestras; the first three, purely orchestral, discs are played by the National Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra in Katowice whilst the final two choral symphonies are performed by the combined forces of the Warsaw National Philharmonic Orchestra and its associated choir. I will write more about the orchestras later but suffice to say at this point that I have been greatly impressed by the skill and dedication of both groups.
I was slightly surprised to realise that Volume 1 of this set was recorded as long ago as 1998. In other words little more than a decade after Naxos had entered the Classical Music marketplace as a bargain basement label selling standard repertoire on carousels in Woolworths, it was embarking on a major cycle of recordings of this knotty stature. From the standpoint of another fifteen or so years further on, this does not seem so remarkable but I think it is important to mark just what a major artistic undertaking this was and how triumphantly it has been achieved.
Special mention too for the technical teams involved. The three Katowice discs were recorded and produced by the excellent Beata Jankowska. Her name will be familiar to those who have collected the critically acclaimed Mahler and Tchaikovsky Symphony cycles again with Wit on Naxos as well as many other recordings too. The former in particular will tax any engineer’s skills but it has to be said that the complex textures and wide dynamic range of the works presented here must have been as challenging as any. Jankowska has produced discs that sound superb regardless of any notional bargain price point.
Naxos, as is there wont with their boxed sets, have simply taken the existing discs exactly as they are and put them in a cardboard slip-case. The benefit for the collector is financial with the five disc set available for around the £15.00 mark whilst the same discs separately are about £6.50. So the set represents roughly a 50% saving on the individual discs. There are other recordings available – including some under the composer’s baton – but I have not heard any of those so am not in a position to make any comparative judgements.
Symphony No.1 dates from 1973 and was commissioned by Perkins Engines of Peterborough England - still going strong today. One rather wonders how many companies in recession-hit 2012 would consider such an investment even for a second. Yet we should be profoundly grateful that they did since this prompted or persuaded Penderecki onto a fruitful path.
Richard Whitehouse’s brief but very useful liner-note provides excellent markers through the score for the first-time listener. As will become clear, Penderecki underwent something of a musical conversion between his first and second symphonies moving away from the post-war Modernism of the 1950s and 1960s to embrace something altogether more tonally-centred which has been labelled ‘neo-Romantic’. As ever, these labels can be as confusing as they are enlightening. Suffice to say that the early works – including the First Symphony - inhabit a world of unrepentantly ‘contemporary’ musical techniques where textures/sonorities and gestures – rhythmic or harmonic - seem to take greater precedence than the older values of form or melody. I use the word seem with some care because Whitehouse usefully points out recurring structural use of ‘A’ as a tonal centre and a walking string line in the celli/bass parts that give the work formal coherence. Certainly, it proves to be instantly engaging and for a half-hour work played without a break one’s attention never wanders. That being said, it is the textures and sounds Penderecki draws from the large orchestra (triple wind, 5 horns, 3 trumpets, 4 trombones, tuba, 5 percussion, harp, celesta, harmonium and piano plus strings) that resonate more than instantly perceivable form or melody.
Having waited some forty years before tackling symphonic form for the first time Penderecki wrote a Second Symphony just over six years later. It was during those intervening six years that Penderecki made the important compositional shift from the essentially experimental to the neo-romantic. That he started it on Christmas Eve 1979 might account for its occasional subtitle - Christmas together with some fleeting rather wan references to the carol Silent Night. It should be noted that this title does not appear anywhere on the Schott published score. Certainly it is not a work replete with "joy to the world" inhabiting as it does a troubled and dark emotional landscape into which brief flickers of familiar melody end up casting as much shadow as they do light. Richard Whitehouse provides another valuable note and he see this work as containing presentiments of the strife suffered in Poland in the early 1980s with the brief success of the Solidarity Union. Whitehouse characterises the work as a tribute to those who dared to challenge the totalitarian State head-on.
By now Penderecki's musical vocabulary has become unrepentantly neo-romantic and the music of this Symphony is more overtly emotional than the earlier work. Certain Pendereckian symphonic characteristics are beginning to appear already; a preference for large single movement forms internally divided into more traditional fast and slow sections is a key one. Symphony No.2 has three main sections which interestingly not only follow a rough symphonic form but at the same time mimic a basic sonata-form of exposition, development and recapitulation completed with a final coda. The orchestra used is similar to the Symphony No.1 requiring just one less percussionist and no piano or harmonium. The sound Penderecki now draws from the players is quite different; more weighty and certainly fuller.
Again, great praise to both players and the technical team for a recording of wide range and telling detail. The brass have some formidably demanding parts to play and they sound as impressive as they are exciting. Central to the emotional impact of the work is a brass-led alleluia figure that comes towards the close of the opening exposition section [track 3 2:19]. Although no reference as such is indicated, to me this has the spirit of an ancient Polish knight's prayer very similar in its emotional impact to that used by Panufnik in his Sinfonia Sacra.
Penderecki's command of symphonic form is again displayed when it becomes apparent that this hymnic phrase is derived from the work's opening material. Further emotional and musical resolution is found with the return of the alleluia near the work's close [track 5 3:35] although this potentially exultant ending is soured by an immediate descent into an abyss of growling low brass and insistent timpani pedal notes which at last dissipates to allow a final haltingly insecure reference to Silent Night. The symphony ends - borrowing Whitehouse's ideal description - in a mood of pensive resignation. Another impressively powerful work receiving what seems to be a wholly convincing performance.
The Third Symphony did not appear in its final form until 1995 although the final two movements appeared as a separate piece at a festival in Lucerne in 1988. Still searching for a definitively personal symphonic form Penderecki moved on from the overtly neo-romantic 2nd Symphony to a style that sought to synthesise elements of both the old and the challengingly new. The Third Symphony is a big piece in every sense. Its five movements last nearly forty-five minutes and Penderecki has expanded his orchestra - still with triple wind - to include a fourth (bass) trumpet and fourth trombone but now with an even larger percussion section requiring nine players. More impressive than its sheer physical scale is the assured way in which Penderecki has fused traditional elements of the multi-movement symphony with his own distinct musical and aesthetic language. Even more than in the earlier works the virtuosity of individual players in the ever-excellent Katowice orchestra is apparent; special praise for the lead trumpeter in the extended, twisted and convoluted 2nd movement solo [track 2 00:30]. Demonstration-worthy engineering ensures that every strand of this complex and weighty score registers.
While having written a stern work often heavy with foreboding Penderecki seems to have thrown off the sheer weight of melancholy that pervaded the Second Symphony. By dividing it into five distinct movements the perception is of a greater emotional range allowing more light and shade. The opening Andante con moto emerges from the shadowy depths where an obsessively repeating string pedal provides the base from which instrumental figures grope upwards. Lasting less than four minutes this has the sense of a prelude or preamble preparing the musical stage for the drama to follow. The relative calm is dispersed in a flurry of strenuous string and timpani activity that opens the second movement Allegro con brio. Pitted against this maelstrom are various solo instrumental cadenzas and short gestures. Gradually the strings are replaced by competing tuned percussion motifs. Excessive percussion writing can often seem rather vacant and intent on making noise for noise's sake but here both in intention and execution the effect is utterly compelling. The movement is driven unrelentingly forward until we reach a cor anglais cadenza of uneasy pastoral calm - again cruelly written but stunningly played. The movement closes over tolling bells and a reminiscence of the work’s opening low string figure.
This prepares the ground for the central Adagio. Here Penderecki achieves a relative peace that has eluded him in his symphonic writing until now. Long lyrical string lines weave in and out of contrasting wind figures over a bed of long-held string pedals and tubular bell rolls. Near the movement's central point the calm is shattered by an eruptive brass statement leaving the strings shuddering with shocked tremolandi. This subsides as quickly as it emerged and the lyrical dialogues resume. The obsessive aggressive repeated low D that opens the fourth movement Passacaglia is - as described in the liner - severe and ominous. Little wonder that film director Martin Scorsese used this passage for part of his recent powerfully oppressive Shutter Island. One assumes that the passacaglia of the title is often unheard since many of the solo passages are just that and have no accompaniment which would 'contain' the harmonic fabric implied by the title. Instead continuity is provided by the near ever-present pedal Ds and more quietly insistent yet understated bells which seem to gain significance within the work's structure as it progresses.
The closing Vivace movement revisits obsessively the idea of pulsating low ostinati based on small melodic cells. This time there is an unwavering driving pace to the music which gives it a toccata-like quality. As with much of the symphony, if one were able to give a tonal character it would be minor key. Again solo cadenzas sit on a bed of orchestral texture yet where previously these were essentially static in this movement the underlying character is one of action. A central panel of the movement has instruments working in pairs either alone or in juxtaposition with other pairs. Gradually the momentum regains the energy that opened the movement. This is maintained - with a variety of dynamic and scale - for most of the remainder of the work. From 9:30 the heavy brass joins and gradually the music builds in power and pitch centres - gaining height from the depths in which it has been gravitating to a rather perplexing and abrupt slowing of the pace into the final soured major key gesture with which it ends. Having listened several times to the piece I still find this ending rather unconvincing especially given the power of most of what has come before.
The Fourth Symphony - coupled here with the 2nd Symphony - was composed and received its premiere in 1989 thereby actually predating its predecessor. It was written as a commission to mark the bicentennial of French Revolution. Again Penderecki uses the single movement divided into five distinct parts. The subtitle "Adagio" is somewhat misleading since one could not say that the music is predominantly slow. The scale is reduced - lasting just over half an hour. There’s a smaller orchestra - similar wind and brass but with a smaller percussion section and no 'extras' like celesta or piano or even harp. There is a group of three off-stage trumpets which adds an extra theatricality. By now "Pendereckian" gestures are becoming more familiar - accompanied cadenzas and a generally sombre indeed pessimistic mood pervade. Certainly this is not music that offers easy solutions or 'happy endings' for the listener. This symphony has the feel of a work concerned more with a journey harbouring little or no expectation of an arrival. Other commentators have evoked Shostakovich's shade when discussing Penderecki and much of the time I feel this is a very generalised comment at best and at worst misleading - to neither composer's benefit. Yet the bassoon recitative in this symphony's 3rd movement (track 8 8:30) does indeed evoke the shell-shocked grieving of the older composer's finest work.
As ever, and perhaps superfluously by now, praise to the orchestra for some wonderfully expressive solos. Indeed this proves to be one of the most compelling movements in this cycle so far - quite literally at the heart of both this work and the seven symphonies as they currently exist. Another Pendereckian finger-print fugato follows - awkward and angular filled with obsessive unsettled energy. Beata Jankowska creates another typically well-managed sound-stage with the percussion convincingly placed and the wealth of instrumental detail registering with exceptional clarity, The offstage trumpets manically chase and echo their onstage counterparts. The closing section revisits elements of the wind soliloquies and remnants of the string fugatos with ghostly trumpet fanfares. The music unwinds and fades away into a unison before silence. No closure again but more compelling than the end of No.3.
Barely another two years passed before Penderecki started on his Fifth Symphony - does the number explain the rhythmic use of Beethoven’s “fate” motif I wonder? - commissioned this time to mark the 50th Anniversary of the independence of Korea from Japan. This is the last of the instrumental symphonies – No.6 is elusively described as “in progress”. There’s a ingle movement form again the use of a large orchestra with quadruple wind this time with an additional 4 trumpets in the hall. That said there are ‘only’ four percussionists. Within the percussion group Penderecki does stipulate what might be termed some Eastern instruments but their presence could not be said to colour the compositional choices made. It did occur to me that he occasionally uses bells or gongs to mark musical paragraphs in the way Tibetan temple bells mark the start of a new period of prayer or meditation. Naxos have chosen not to divide the sections of the work. This which plays continuously for a full 37 minutes even though, paradoxically, the sub-divided ‘movements’ are more clearly defined – even on a first listen – than some of the earlier works.
Penderecki rarely – if ever – in the symphonies requires the extended performance techniques of his orchestra that in many ways define his earlier orchestral works. For sure the music is complex and often very demanding indeed to play but he does ask for non-standard modes of playing. That said, in this symphony he returns to the juxtaposing of material, harmonic, rhythmic or melodic, that harks back to the First Symphony and indeed to earlier works. So the opening takes a harshly repeated single note and contrasts it with a falling melodic line which is in turn contrasted with a rising melodic line. The first five minutes seem to lay out the musical material of the piece for inspection and while not strictly cyclical Penderecki does return to this basic fabric repeatedly. Around the five minute mark the violas lead off a violently aggressive fugal passage. This is impressive both as played and as written. Again as seems to be the norm with Penderecki this conveys a very serious, almost intellectual rigour without adding much in the way of emotion. Richard Whitehouse in the liner-notes refers to a “Shostakovich-like irony” in the handling of the central section of the work. I must admit that this eludes me mainly because Penderecki never allows the underlying mood to vary from the sobriety of his preferred style. Without ‘lightness’ – sincere or satirical - there is little contextual room for irony. For me the power of Penderecki’s writing comes from the cumulative, unwavering preference for what in other hands might seem like a limited emotional palette. This staunch refusal to relax an iron grip on the music means that when very occasionally a ray of light does pierce the gloom it is as surprising as it is welcome. Very briefly, like a false dawn, there is an intriguing passage which seems to echo Nielsen’s Helios Overture but the hope it might represent is extinguished almost as soon as it is expressed. A return of the fugal/scherzo material leads to the mightiest climax of the work near the thirty minute point. As ever the Katowice brass are massively impressive.
I’m not sure exciting is the right word but this is music of exceptional power and impact. The closing pages revisit fragments and elements of the music that has already been explored and expanded upon. More exceptional work from the oboe and cor anglais in particular mark another of Penderecki’s favoured cadenza-soliloquies. Just as the assumption is made that the work will close with a sense of repose a last vehement string outburst echoes the hammered repetition of the opening albeit on a different pitch centre as if to reinforce the impression of ‘not-quite-cyclical’. Even on my brief knowledge and acquaintance with this music I found this work to be initially knotty but increasingly impressive.
By the time Wit came to record the last two symphonies he had moved on to become the Managing and Artistic Director of the Warsaw Philharmonic so no surprise that they should feature as the chosen orchestra. A different technical team; Andrzej Sasin and Aleksandra Nagórko were given the task of committing these very large-scale works to disc. Sasin was on the desk for the recording by these same forces of Janácek’s Glagolitic Mass which impressed me less than other reviewers. No complaints this time – the forces Penderecki deploys are vast even by his standards; 5 soloists (2 sopranos) plus narrator and a large choir - the score states 3 choirs and indeed 3 separate ones took part in the first performance. There’s a huge orchestra with again quadruple wind and brass, including the rare bass trumpet, piano, celesta and organ plus strings. Twelve percussion are split into four groups. The icing on the instrumental cake is an off-stage instrumental group of another 4 clarinets and 4 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 4 trombones and tuba. Curiously, as is often the case in Penderecki’s work, the listener is not often overwhelmed by the sheer scale and power of the writing. The number of instruments is more to allow a variety of texture and spatial presentation rather than simple full-frontal assault. All credit to the technical team who provide a sound picture combining clarity and well-defined positioning as well as power when required. My one little query is whether the choir has the sheer numbers available to match the few occasions they are pitted against the full orchestra. For all the good work of the engineers they are rather swamped.
Richard Whitehouse again supplies the liner. He sees the work as representing a fusion or confluence of the twin threads of choral and symphonic composition. Hence the equivocation between its original description as an ‘Oratorio’ and the later appending of the title ‘Symphony No.7’ when it received its Polish premiere. The Symphony/Oratorio is sub-titled The Seven Gates of Jerusalem. Although there are eleven gates in the walls of the old city as built by Suleiman the Magnificent only seven are open with the eighth being reserved – in Hebrew tradition – for the Messiah. No real surprise therefore that “7” takes on a structural quasi-ritualistic significance in this work. There are seven movements and 7-note phrases and motifs bind the structure. Much as these motifs impose themselves on the listener even on initial acquaintance there is another quality that separates this work from the preceding symphonies: radiance. Penderecki allows light into this score in a way that has been conspicuously absent before. For sure it is still an often stark indeed gaunt work but critically the presence of soprano voices, both in the choir and as soloists, alone or duetting, lifts the weight of stark sobriety that has marked many of the earlier works. An example of this is that it opens with a firmly unison C and closes with a sustained unclouded and unequivocal held chord of E. This is quite without the harmonic ambiguity that shrouds/defines the other symphonies.
The singing is uniformly excellent – perhaps the choir sopranos “splash” a couple of their entries but overall it is impassioned and committed singing. If that is true of the choir it is even more so of the soloists. The fact that four of the five are native Poles - soprano Olga Pasichnyk is Ukrainian - gives both the sound they make and style a thoroughly idiomatic feel. My only gripe is the Naxos standard practice of making the text only available online – for the sake of another page in the booklet I don’t want to have to print off a sheet that won’t then fit in the jewel case or box. For those willing to have a computer to hand while listening Penderecki’s publisher Schott offer a major bonus. The entire score can be viewed as a scrollable pdf. With such a rich and complex score it is fascinating to see how the parts on the page translate into sound. Penderecki’s great skill here – and in many of his other vocal works in particular – is to achieve a fusion of ancient and modern. The musical vocabulary is patently ‘modern’ yet its animating spirit is ancient and timeless. Much of the music seems ritualistic and potent with extra-musical meaning. Much of the text is taken from the Psalms with the rest excerpts from the Old Testament. The first and last movements frame the work with imposing music of considerable impact and a spirit of some grand pontifical procession. The writing is monolithic and spare in its use of textures or contrapuntal writing. What we hear are blocks of sound/instrumentation set in opposition to each other. The second and fourth movements make prominent use of the repeated 7 note phrase alongside other Pendereckian gestures of slowly descending scalic figures in the strings as well as throbbing timpani. The presence of five soloists, as with so much of this work, seems rather luxurious since none have overly large roles but Penderecki uses them to telling effect. The second soprano in the second movement Si oblitus fuero tui, Jerusalem is a highlight. The third movement De profundis is set for the choir alone. I did wonder if there was just a hint of caution in the singing that robbed it of the hushed intensity the writing would seem to demand. By its nature it is horribly exposed writing and the choir are very fine but in my mind’s ear I could imagine it even better. The first four movements are all self-contained whilst the final three run together. The framing music of the 5th Gate Lauda Jerusalem is the only sustained scherzo-like music in the work. Antiphonal percussion groups are the driving force behind an exciting toccata-like movement. Again the sopranos prove a little fallible in ‘pinging’ out high-lying notes from nowhere but this does not unduly detract from the music-making. This is the longest single section of the work – running to over seventeen minutes with two toccata-scherzo sections framing a pastoral central panel featuring some beautiful orchestral playing. An extended horn solo in particular lingers in the memory. The penultimate gate is striking for the introduction of a sepulchrally-voiced narrator sounding rather like one imagines an Old Testament prophet did haranguing the cowed masses. The instrumentation here is very striking with static string and brass chords punctuated by percussion gestures marking out the sections. The ‘only’ melodic material is given to the previously mentioned bass trumpet which is meant to represent the voice of God. At the climax of the movement the choir enters with the seventh and final gate which builds impressively featuring the entire performing group who revisit material both literary and musical from earlier in the work. Apart from a muted section towards the end the work closes with the powerful affirmation in bright E major.
The celebratory nature of the work – written to mark Jerusalem’s 3rd Millenium – dictates the impractical near-profligate scale of the writing. You can imagine programme planners having nervous breakdowns trying to stage this work; at ‘just’ an hour long it’s too short for an entire concert but what on earth to programme with it. I suspect a modicum of logistic pragmatism has robbed this performance of the extra choral forces that would have made this recording even more impressive than it is – which, to be honest, is pretty impressive. Again a major feather in the Naxos cap for making music of this complex quality available in such a fine and affordable recording.
So to the Eighth and last - to date - Symphony … or perhaps not. The performance on this disc is of the original 2005 score consisting of twelve song settings lasting around 36 minutes. Referring to Schott's site reveals - they provide another online viewable score - a 2007 revision. This adds a further three songs and apparently extends the running time by nearly twenty minutes. As and when Naxos decide to record this revision time will tell. What is unclear is whether this 'original' version is still deemed legitimate or has been superseded by the expanded revision. Curiously Schott's site lists this Naxos recording without making any mention of this question of edition. Obviously, my comments relate to the original version as recorded here.
From the very opening bars it is clear that Penderecki has reinvented his compositional persona once again. This work has few if any of the epic gestures of the 7th Symphony. Also there are - until the closing sections - few of what I might term typically Pendereckian gestures. Texts again are available on-line only. The feel, for want of a better description is of post-modern-impressionism. By choosing to set, in their original language, Romantic German poets the composer creates a parallel with works such as Zemlinsky's Lyric Symphony albeit refracted through a lens of a contemporary music idiom. The scoring too is more pointillist and subdued. Likewise, most of the movements are brief. Only the twelfth and last breaks the five minute barrier. Although Penderecki uses a substantial orchestra - again it is not clear from the Schott's listing whether the instrumentation was expanded during the revision - its use is carefully controlled. Only in the final movement is it for the first time that all three soloists, choir and orchestra join forces. The title translates as "Songs of Transience" and indeed muted regret and loss do permeate the music. Penderecki consciously seems to focus more on lyrical beauty of lines. The performers are once again excellent. Two of the three soloists took part in the world premiere. The one who didn't, soprano Michaela Kaune, is fearlessly brave in her tackling of the angular and widely spaced lines. The Warsaw Philharmonic Choir are in fine form too. Listen to the very end of the work; an extraordinary effect with the choir executing a slow controlled glissando slide upwards disappearing into the musical mist. In this original version I like very much the way the full forces are saved for this final movement. In the revision the ‘new’ 3rd movement is a setting of Brecht which uses all the vocal forces. Penderecki returns to some of his more characteristic traits as though telling us that for all the experimentation earlier this indeed is his ‘true’ self. The agitated string lines conform, his presence as do the last of his cadenza-soliloquies here again allocated to the garrulous bass trumpet which made such a sonic impact in the previous symphony. Overall, this is the most overtly beautiful and reflective of the cycle.
One of the things Naxos got right early on was the appropriateness and interest, as well as value, of the couplings. So it is with these discs. Three of the five contain symphonies alone. The remaining two have very valuable couplings. The earliest of those is the 1958 Aus den Psalmen Davids which is one of the works accompanying the 8th Symphony. This setting of four Psalms is palpably early. The instrumental group of two pianos and eight percussion echoes Stravinsky and even Orff yet with seeds of the mature composer already evident. There is particularly strong singing from the Warsaw choir here. The contrast to the late symphony could barely be greater and as such makes for a fascinating coupling.
Sandwiched between the two is a setting of the Dies Irae from roughly a decade later before Penderecki had embraced neo-Romanticism. Again for a short(ish) work Penderecki requires a large orchestra: at least 3, often 4 wind and brass of each instrument, 8 percussion, harmonium and piano. The strings are represented by cellos and basses alone perhaps to emphasise the “de profundis” nature of the work. Having made the journey with Penderecki through his symphonies I must admit to finding his earlier incarnation less appealing but this is a starkly atmospheric work with voices appearing out of the musical gloom. Penderecki makes far greater use of extended vocal techniques in this work with the chorus muttering obsessively and clustered chords set in opposition to explosive orchestral gestures. Again, the technical team have to be praised for the clarity the recording has from the faintest swish of a tam-tam to great walls of apocalyptic brass. As musical theatre these are undoubtedly high-impact effects, perhaps reflecting Penderecki’s other great interest in music for the stage. However how lasting these make the music I’m not so sure. Certainly, from a viewpoint of barely 45 years later this kind of ‘cutting-edge’ modernism seems rather dated now. Interesting in placing the composer on an evolutionary path but of less enduring worth than much of his later music.
The earliest instrumental work included in this set is the famous Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima for 52 Strings. With such an evocative and indeed emotive title I was interested to read that Penderecki considered initially titling it rather baldly – in the style of Cage – 8’37”. Which rather begs the question of what we as listeners ‘expect’ of a piece on the strength of its title alone. Penderecki in the liner is quoted as saying it was only after the first live performance that he perceived the emotional charge in the work which caused him to “search around” for an association before alighting on the current title. Coming to the work hard on the heels of the later symphonies is something of a shock – and in the reverse way to his first supporters who felt his move to neo-romanticism ‘betrayed’ this earlier aesthetic. Putting to one side the title – which I feel can blur the original aim of the work - this is a classic example of contemporary composition from the late 1950s into the early 1960s. On a structural level it juxtaposes the opposites of total freedom: chance or aleatoric techniques with the very controlled demands of serial composition. More immediately striking is his use of string sonority; one might say anti-sonority since this work is a study in making non-typical string sounds on stringed instruments. What lifts the work away from the great mass of the music of this period is that Penderecki – whether by accident, as it would seem from the above quote, or design allowed an emotional element to invade the music. I have seen other reviews that prefer the composer’s own recording on EMI. I cannot make that judgement not having heard it but this would seem to be a committed performance in its own right. The irony is that in seeking to break free of the traditions of both composition and performance works such as the Threnody and indeed the other two fillers here created a new brand of avant-garde formalism that was as hard to break free from as the earlier one had been. Witness the fury within the contemporary music community that Penderecki’s first forays into more ‘traditional’ styles provoked.
Fluorescences dates from a year after the Threnody and expands the field of sonorities and instrumental textures available by writing for the kind of large orchestra that typifies the later symphonic works. When I say large orchestra in this case I mean quadruple wind, six horns, four trumpets, three trombones and two tubas, six percussion including a typewriter and siren, piano and strings. Post-Satie I am not sure I can ever take a score which contains sirens and typewriters wholly seriously. The liner writer – Mieczslaw Tomaszewski – sees this as an attempt to move beyond “the sphere of musical sound into that of purely acoustic phenomena known from the modern world at large”. Penderecki wrote in the concert programme for the first performance: “In this composition, all I am interested in is liberating sound beyond all tradition.” Certainly it has the feel of Musique concrète transcribed for orchestra. Whether or not this style of composition appeals will depend on just how interesting and engaging you find such experiments in orchestral timbres. Personally they pass me by except on a level of having my curiosity piqued as to how any particular sound is generated. This is not a work I can ever imagine feeling ‘in the mood’ for ever again. It is only fair to praise the huge dynamic range of the recording and the precision, as far as one can tell, and commitment of the playing.
The final work is De Naturis Sonoris II which dates from a full decade later – much closer to the stylistic schism. Certainly one can hear this as a way-station between the experiments in sonority alone of the early works and the music written from the 2nd Symphony onwards. The writing is less self-consciously sensational/effect-driven although still dominated by musical gestures born of extended playing techniques.
Naxos has now produced some 18 or so discs of Penderecki’s orchestral and choral works. This shows a stunning commitment to the music of a major contemporary composer. I was trying to form an opinion of which work impressed me the most and then realised that it was the work I was currently listening to. This is music that makes demands of both the listeners and certainly the players. I am not sure I could categorise it as ‘enjoyable’ as such but rewarding and fascinating and richly inventive for sure. In fact it is exactly the kind of music that needs to be available on disc to allow the listener to penetrate its complex depths over time and repeated playings. Many the composer who laments being able to have his music easily available to the general listening public and when it is rarely can it be found in performances as convincing and dedicated as those here.
An artistic statement of impressive intent and compelling execution.