Penderecki’s Eighth Symphony is more like a song-cycle than any symphony you might expect to hear, even a vocal one. I have been comparing this Dux cycle of the entire current canon of Penderecki’s symphonies against that from the Naxos label, the complete set of which is reviewed here. This is one case in which the two releases might be said to be complementary as well as competing. The Naxos recording is a world première of the original 2005 version of the work, which consisted of twelve songs rather than the fifteen in the 2008 revised version. The Naxos CD, 8.570450, also has the Dies Irae and Aus den Psalmen Davids as an added incentive to go along with a cheaper asking price.
The Naxos sound in this symphony is good, but a bit more distant and generalised when compared to the more immediate sonics of this Dux version. Choir and soloists are good in both performances, though any weaknesses are more exposed in Penderecki’s closer recording. There is a feeling of caution in some of the choir’s entries earlier on, but they warm to their task as the work progresses. The composer is more edgy in most of the songs, such as Bei einer Linde, which sounds more like a serious-toned walk in a park under Antoni Wit where the composer portrays a sense of real danger and vulnerability. Penderecki’s timings are not exclusively shorter than Wit’s, though even when he lingers longer such as in Flieder there is a greater sense of dynamism which encourages a feeling of drama and momentum.
Unusual as this might be for a symphonic form, there is so much variety and contrast and so many riches in terms of musical quality that this becomes an essential Penderecki purchase. This work moves beyond the grand religious resonances of the Seventh Symphony and other related pieces, introducing all kinds of evocations and little references in these ‘Songs of Transience’. The booklet gives all texts though not in translation – you’ll have to brush up your German to appreciate the nuances of these Lieder. The balance between female and male voice creates added dramatic contrasts, giving the work an organic cantata/opera feel. In the end I feel the complete-revised version of this work conducted by the composer has the edge in absolute terms over Antoni Wit’s première recording, but both recordings have much to commend them. As far as the extra songs go, you will want to hear the haunting sounds of Der brennende Baum and the atmospheric Romantic references in Der Blütengarten, though despite some stunning orchestral details the duetting ladies and cinematic padding of Abschied lays things on with too thick a trowel for my taste.
In coming to the end of the newest Dux label cycle of Penderecki’s symphonies when compared to those conducted by Antoni Wit from Naxos I am going to be a typical Libran and sit firmly on the fence. Wit’s Naxos cycle is cheaper, more consistent and has more fillers where DUX is more expensive and can run short in terms of playing times with only the symphonies programmed. This said, Penderecki frequently obtains a clearer and more emphatic musical message in recordings whose clarity often offers a closer and more exciting view of his remarkable orchestration. This is not always the case as with the more swampy Seventh Symphony, but there are always other payoffs which make all of these performances more than worth having. If you already have Wit then I would say stick, but if it’s only the symphonic cycle you need and price is no object then the composer’s own renditions, now easily acquirable, have to be more than just desirable.