Krzystof PENDERECKI (b. 1933)
Violin Concerto No.1 (1976-77) [41:36]
Viola Concerto (1983) [22:46]
Konstanty Andrzej Kulka (violin)
Robert Kabara (viola)
Polish Sinfonia Iuventus Orchestra/Maciej Tworek (viola), Krzysztof Penderecki (violin)
rec. December 2014, Concert Hall of the Krzysztof Penderecki European Centre in Lusławice
DUX 1185 [63:22]

Though it was given an auspicious premiere by Isaac Stern back in April 1977, few violinists have been more closely associated with Penderecki’s Violin Concerto No.1 than that stalwart practitioner, Konstanty Andrzej Kulka. He recorded it commercially for Naxos back in 2000 with Antoni Wit directing the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra (8.555265) and Dux’s recording teams him with Penderecki himself, in a recording made in December 2014 in the hall of the music centre named after the composer in Lusławice.

The great champion of Polish violin music was then 67 years old and his technique is still resilient enough to withstand the demands placed on it. He still evokes those dark Shostakovich-like reflections as well as the music’s nostalgic face. He also brings a comparable sense of expressive intensity to the musical argument – he’s never a fiddler to short-change an audience through excessive reticence. He has not lost his ability to draw out those Berg-inspired elements in the music either and if there are some small concessions in terms of absolute assurance on the fingerboard, compensations come from his rich authority and long experience of the work. It’s telling that composer-executants are, historically speaking, plainer-speaking and faster interpreters of their own music but Penderecki is around two-and-a-half minutes slower here than Wit. Time may have somewhat slowed but visceral commitment has not lessened. Back in 1992 Penderecki conducted Christiane Edinger in the work (Orfeo 285931) and for what it’s worth his tempo matched Wit’s for Kulka exactly.

The advantages of hearing a composer direct his own music are, in this disc, confined to the Violin Concerto but Maciej Tworek is no stranger to the composer’s music. Indeed for over a decade he has prepared ensembles to perform Penderecki’s music. He carried out the preparatory conducting work for Symphony No.8, for example, which was premiered under the baton of the composer. It’s no surprise then that he directs the 1983 Viola Concerto so well. Some have found this a less-than-inspiring achievement but I welcome its multi-sectional threnodic qualities, even when the central mood is black as pitch. This chamber-sized concerto sustains its length well and its tone is well suited to the more elegiac and sombre tonal qualities of the viola. The score’s recurrent sighing motif is eventually resolved and this is a moment of necessary catharsis. Robert Kabara plays excellently, though Wit – again – takes a more tempestuous tempo with Grigori Zhislin on Naxos 8.572211. Meanwhile Tabea Zimmermann and Kim Kashkashian have both recorded the Viola Concerto, the former especially powerfully.

The Polish Sinfonia Iuventus Orchestra – bit of a mouthful – plays with real assurance, and has been excellently recorded, though I marginally prefer the Polish National Radio in the Violin Concerto. But this brace of performances shows how integrated the concertos have now become into the mainstream musical soil of our time.

Jonathan Woolf

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