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Krzysztof PENDERECKI (b. 1933)
Piano Concerto ‘Resurrection’ (2001/02, rev. 2007) [37:11]
Concerto for Flute and Chamber Orchestra (1992) [23:19]
Barry Douglas (piano); Łukasz Długosz (flute);
Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra/Antoni Wit
rec. Warsaw Philharmonic Hall, Warsaw, Poland, 17-18 June 2010 (Piano Concerto) and Witold Lutosławski Concert Hall of the Polish Radio, Warsaw, 4-5 October 2010 (Flute Concerto) DDD
NAXOS 8.572696 [60:30]

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 Horn Concerto.
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.
Leslie Wright