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Krzysztof PENDERECKI (1933-2020)
Cello concerto No. 2 (1982) [38:08]
Sonata for cello and orchestra (1964) [10:17]
Maja Bodanović and Danjula Ishizaka (cellos)
Jerzy Semkow Polish Sinfonia Iuventus Orchestra/Krzysztof Penderecki, Maciej Tworek
Rec. December 2019 at Radio Concert Studio, Warsaw
Concertos Volume 9
DUX 1572 [48:25]

One of the most valuable things a record company can do is to invite a living composer to lead or supervise a complete edition of their work. Early examples were the CBS Stravinsky cycle (now on Sony) and the Decca cycle of Britten. The Polish label Dux set out to do the same thing for Penderecki, although he has now died, and they have also secured state funding from various sources to support them. This cycle has so far run to some sixteen or so volumes. Although I don’t think there are definitive performances, even when a composer performs their own work, such cycles do often provide models for later performers to study.

Here in volume 9 we have the second cello concerto, one of its composer’s best regarded and most recorded works, together with another work, called a sonata but in fact another concertante though much shorter work for cello and orchestra. The concerto was written for Rostropovich, who did so much to expand the cello repertoire, and who subsequently recorded it. It is in one movement but this is divided into eight sections which play continuously; there is no equivalent to the traditional three movement structure for concertos. Slow and fast sections alternate. There is a chromatic motif which appears several times. Most of the writing is in Penderecki’s later, neo-Romantic, idiom, but there are excursions into his earlier, avant-garde one, notably a passage for percussion in the second fast section. However, it is the slow writing which is the more striking, particularly in the extended fifth section.

The piece makes for pleasant listening, but I must admit I was somewhat surprised by its reputation. Most of the material seems unmemorable to me, although the passages where the composer reverts to his earlier and bolder idiom seemed more impressive to me than the others. The concertos by Lutosławski and Dutilleux, to take couple of others which Rostropovich commissioned and recorded, seem to me much finer.

The sonata is a much earlier work, indeed one of Penderecki’s first concertante works, and comes wholly from that early period and idiom. It was written for Siegfried Palm, a celebrated exponent of new works. This is a tense and anxious piece, impressive in its way, and it seems to me more successful in its own terms than does the concerto.

The performances, with Maja Bogdanović and Danjula Ishizaka as soloists in, respectively, the concerto and the sonata, seem assured and well-prepared. The orchestra is the excellent Jerzy Semkow Polish Sinfonia Iuventus Orchestra, with some external stiffening of the strings. Two conductors are credited: Penderecki was indeed a proficient conductor of his own music, but I suspect he here took a back seat to Maciej Tworek, who has conducted a number of his works.

The recording is full and clear and does justice to Penderecki’s passages for growling lower brass as well as balancing the cello nicely. The booklet is helpful. There are many other recordings of the concerto, but few of the sonata. They do, however, both appear, though not together, in Antoni Wit’s rival Penderecki series from Naxos, which has been well received. This disc is rather short measure but if the coupling suits, there is no need to hesitate.

Stephen Barber

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