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Krzysztof PENDERECKI (1933-2020)
Symphony No. 6 ‘Chinese Songs’ (2003-2017) [26:42]
Clarinet Concerto (1983/1995) [20:21]
Stephan Genz (baritone), Joanna Kravchenko (erhu), Andrzej Wojciechowski (clarinet)
Polish Chamber Philharmonic Orchestra Sopot/Wojciech Rajski
rec. 2019, Church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary – Star of the Sea, Sopot, Poland
Texts and translations included
CD ACCORD ACD270-2 [47:03]

This issue surfaced just prior to the recent passing of the Polish master at the age of 87; as it fills one of the most mysterious ‘gaps’ in the output of any composer, contemporary or otherwise, it functions as an apt memorial. Penderecki’s Symphony No 6 is legendary for seemingly having existed “only in the composer’s head” for decades and finally materialised in completed form a couple of years ago at its premiere in Guangzhou, China, long after its monumental numerical ‘successors’, the seventh and eighth symphonies. Consequently, the symphonic cycles that have emerged (on Naxos 8.505231 under Antoni Wit and Dux 0947 under the composer himself) have been incomplete. Andrzej Sułek’s extremely comprehensive booklet essay refers to the composer’s hope of completing a cycle of nine such works, an ambition that fate has now sadly dashed.

Not unexpectedly, this sixth symphony had something of a tortuous conception. Penderecki’s initial impulse emerged in the mid-1990s when he conceived the work as an ‘Elegy for a Dying Forest’. He was hardly the first artist of international standing to wake up to the effects on the natural world of destructive human consumerism, but what started as a universal idea was distilled into an iteration of more local import as the composer ruminated about the trees in the park adjacent to his home (the inner sleeve depicts him walking among them). This eventually suggested a need for sung poetry, and he duly settled upon eight poems by five Chinese poets from the Tang dynasty in German language ‘versions’ (as opposed to direct translations) by Hans Bethge. Nor are these texts exclusively concerned with trees; they seem equally concerned with floral, avian or nocturnal themes.

The first of these ‘Chinese Songs’, The Mysterious Flute projects an orientally tinged, impressionistic sound straightaway, although the vocal writing suggests Mahler first and foremost. The baritone Stephan Genz is a lieder singer of the first order and makes this music his own from the outset. Technically speaking, it is most skilfully constructed. Groups of two or three songs are linked by sensual little intermezzi performed by Joanna Kravchenko on the Chinese erhu, a stringed instrument with a decidedly vocal character. In a Foreign Land is darker, and even more Mahlerian, an apt description also for On a River which follows. Genz proves to be the perfect choice to perform these little songs; his richly coloured vocal timbre adapts seamlessly to mood and text. Bethge’s translations of Ly-Y-Han’s texts for Wild Swans and Despair have each been pruned; both are mercurial in mood and feature distinctive percussion textures and colourations. The recording strikes one here as over-resonant at its loudest points. Some of Penderecki’s writing for solo instruments in these numbers is a delight- the principals of the Polish Chamber Philharmonic revel in its velvet charms. Moonlit Night is more limpid, hauntingly nocturnal, but again seems over-loud – I did find myself constantly fiddling with the volume throughout the work. Whilst the word-setting is certainly expert and apt, I can’t help feeling it’s also rather clichéd. It’s attractive music per se but the sporadic entries of the erhu constitute the symphony’s only real novelty. Night View is coloured tellingly, a barcarolle-like nocturne with atmospheric harp, glittering percussion and silvery strings, it concludes with a pining cor anglais. A final, otherworldly erhu link leads to the final Autumn Flute Song, which provides a neat symmetry with the symphony’s opening number. It’s elegant, competently written, superbly sung and played and peters out demurely with an atmospheric flute, but ... I feel a little underwhelmed really. It’s almost as if I was harbouring a delusion that Penderecki might have had something really unusual and game-changing up his sleeve. Nobody could be offended by this symphony. It distils the accessible styles with which the composer dabbled in his last three decades. The chamber orchestral forces convey an undeniably attractive soundworld. Maybe the rather unsubtle recording has artificially inflated it into something it isn’t; a more pared-down, less spotlit approach might have resulted in something very different. In the final analysis I suspect that other listeners will be more impressed by this ‘missing link’ in Penderecki’s symphonic cycle than I was.

The coupling, the Concerto for Clarinet (with strings, percussion and celesta) was not originally conceived for the instrument. In fact Penderecki recycled his 1983 Viola Concerto (it has also been re-imagined in versions for cello and even guitar). It’s cast in a single movement and Dux have helpfully tracked its five identifiable sections; the odd-numbered ones are reflective in tone, adopting an almost romantic lingua-franca and incorporating what Andrzej Sułek refers to as a ‘sighing’ motif (the two-note phrase with which the piece opens) while their even-numbered counterparts (marked vivace and vivo respectively) are pithy and propulsive. The gentle string dissonances in its initial two minutes and the strident phrasing which follows are to my ears more characteristically Pendereckian (and identifiably ‘Polish contemporary’) than anything in the symphony. This brief concerto seems immaculately balanced and works superbly for the clarinet. The big recorded sound features in this work also only I find it much less intrusive. I have not encountered the soloist, Andrzej Wojciechowski before, but he makes a spirited, lithe impression. He is alive to the composer’s expressive intentions and equal to the gymnastic demands of the faster music. The percussion writing is exciting throughout and sounds terrific.

It’s hard to conceive that in either of these two contrasting pieces the composer could have imagined more ardent advocacy than that offered by Wojciech Rajski and the Polish Chamber Philharmonic and as I have intimated each of the three solo performers seem exceptional. It goes without saying that Penderecki completists will want the disc for the symphony. Others who engage occasionally in contemporary music will find there is little requirement to stray far from their comfort zone in either of these approachable and eminently well-crafted works. Frankly speaking however, the symphony doesn’t really tell me anything I didn’t already know.

Richard Hanlon

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