After listening several times to this CD, I still
do not know how seriously to take Penderecki in his neo-Romantic pose.
When I reviewed
an earlier disc in the Naxos Penderecki series, I put down the composer’s
Horn Concerto as being rather simplistic in contrast to the works on
the CD from his earlier, experimental self of the 1960s and early 1970s.
However, next to his Piano Concerto, the work for horn sounds like an
absolute masterpiece! For one thing, the Piano Concerto goes on for
way too long. It is of similar length to each of his violin concertos,
but those seem like serious works that more or less sustain their lengths.
The Piano Concerto, on the other hand, is all over the place. It begins
well with an arresting idea with strings and percussion before the piano
enters that is typical of Penderecki in his latest phase: rhythmic and
agitated and reminiscent of Shostakovich. Richard Whitehouse in his
notes to the CD goes to great pains to explain each track of the ten
tracks of the concerto (the movements are without breaks) with a blow-by-blow
description of what is going on in the work. He does the same for the
disc mate, the Flute Concerto.
Apparently Penderecki gave the “Resurrection” title to the
Piano Concerto when he greatly revised it and included a chorale based
on a plainsong idea he conceived in the aftermath of the September 11,
2001 attacks. He was trying to make a “big statement.” The
problem I have is the statement has gone way over the top, where the
result becomes unintentionally humorous. Each time he brings the chorale
theme back, it sounds more and more like Saint-Saëns. In the last
movement, he has the strings quietly playing the chorale with the piano
tinkling above, which reminded me for all the world of a similar passage
in Saint-Saëns’ Fourth Piano Concerto. There are also sweeping
Rachmaninov-like passages and Prokofiev-like marches, and lots of percussion.
The initial, arresting phrase-in the minor-reappears from time to time,
but Penderecki concludes the concerto loudly in the major with slashing
chords and a trite “Rachmaninov” ending. If anything were
to give the composer a bad name, it would be this concerto!
What a relief, then, to turn to the Flute Concerto. This work has everything
going for it that is lacking in the other piece. First of all, it is
not a minute too long. It is scored for chamber orchestra and, except
for the many cadenza-like flute solos, other instruments have plenty
of opportunity to shine in the concerto as well. In fact, it begins
not with the flute but with a beautiful clarinet solo that is later
joined by the flute. The work is in five continuous movements, the second
of which begins with a virtuosic trumpet solo. There is also delightful
interplay here among the winds and horn with the flute joining them.
This concerto seems to be a brighter work than the one for piano, though
it, too, has plenty of pensive moments. The third movement is particularly
ruminative. Percussion, employed imaginatively, also plays an important
role in the concerto. The fourth movement is introduced by loud drumming
that serves as a contrast to much of what has taken place earlier in
the work, before bells and cymbals accompany the flute and strings.
The concerto concludes peacefully, if a little mournfully, with soft
bells and then a final sustained chord. It has quite the opposite effect
from the Piano Concerto and indeed makes the stronger statement. The
Flute Concerto helps to vindicate the composer’s turn from his
earlier avant-garde dissonance to a more listener-friendly idiom. That’s
not to say these later works are in any way superior to the ones that
made his reputation, but that Penderecki can still compose good music
in a more conservative vein. One should note, though, that the Flute
Concerto is from the 1990s (also the time of his Second Violin Concerto),
whereas the Piano Concerto is much more contemporary like the aforementioned
The performances leave nothing to be desired. Penderecki premiered the
revised Piano Concerto with Barry Douglas in 2007 and the pianist masters
it in this recording. I am aware of one other recording of the work,
and there have been a few of the Flute Concerto. Łukasz Długosz
is the superb soloist here. Antoni Wit and the Warsaw Philharmonic are
old hands when it comes to Penderecki and do not disappoint. This is
just the latest volume in Wit’s Penderecki cycle for Naxos. The
sound for the Piano Concerto is perfectly good, considering the huge
forces required; that for the Flute Concerto with its more transparent
orchestration is especially fine. As usual, Naxos does not stint on
its notes, with detailed descriptions of the works and biographical
sketches of the artists involved.
If you are collecting this Penderecki series, you can confidently add
this latest volume. However, if the Flute Concerto is your main interest,
there are other options that may contain more agreeable disc mates.
I, for one, will be happy to return to the Flute Concerto, but I doubt
that I will listen to the Piano Concerto again any time soon.