Classical Music Review: New Releases

Krzysztof Penderecki - Orchestral Works, Vol. 1.  Symphony No. 3; Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima for 52 stringed instruments; Fluorescences for orchestra; De natura sonoris II for orchestra.  Naxos CD 8.554491 (77'25).

Krzysztof Penderecki - Orchestral Works, Vol. 2.  Symphony No. 5; Symphony No. 1.  Naxos CD 8.554567 (68'06).

Krzysztof Penderecki - Orchestral Works, Vol. 3.  Symphony No. 2; Symphony No. 4.  Naxos CD 8.554492 (65'14).

National Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra (Katowice); Antoni Wit, conductor.

Around fifteen years ago, disturbing and remarkable rumors circulated in the new music ghetto regarding Krzysztof Penderecki.  It seemed that the enfant terrible of the avant-garde was transforming himself into an updated Anton Bruckner.  It was as if Samuel Beckett had decided to write a novel in the manner of Jane Austin.  Even more remarkably, the rumors turned out to be true for the most part and the results of that transformation can be heard on the disks under review.

From his first public compositions in the late 1950's, Penderecki achieved the modernist grail: an instantly recognizable personal style.  That style is epitomized in the Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima (1960).  "By employing both known and unknown modes of articulation," writes Mieczyslaw Tomaszewski, "Penderecki made strings sound akin to percussion and wind.  He drew on two contrasting compositional techniques: the extreme freedom of aleatoricism and the exacting one of serialism."  It was a style both accessible, if one suspended one's notions of what a string orchestra should sound like, and strangely moving (the emotional impact seems to have even surprised the composer who gave the work its present title only after hearing the first performance).

Fluorescences, written the following year, advances on this style.  Fragmented, dynamically extreme, sonically inventive, the work is best described as an collage for the ear.  What elevates this work (and much of Penderecki's other work of the 1960s) is his genius for avoiding tedium.  As in any successful collage, the pieces amalgamate into a whole.  This facet of Penderecki's music achieves its most developed form in the Symphony No. 1 (1973).  Sounding like the kind of symphony one would have expected Penderecki to write (much as Webern's Symphony sounds like the kind of symphony one would have expected Webern to write), the pastiche of the earlier works, now divided into four movements, makes for an extraordinary composition whose development depends on pure sound rather than melody and harmony.  It is a remarkable achievement, but one that the composer seems to have felt had reached its limit.  At any rate, the following four symphonies inhabit an entirely different world.

The Symphony No. 2 (1980), subtitled the "Christmas Symphony", replaces the plucked strings and aleatoricism with the organ-like sonorities of bowed low strings and a fully notated traditional score.  What is most fascinating about the work is how assured the whole thing sounds, as if Penderecki had been composing in this neo-romantic style his entire career.  Despite some structural lapses, the symphonic argument is maintained from beginning to end.  The music is emotionally gripping, dramatic, powerful, and scored in a manner that would probably not shock Brahms.  It is also a somewhat anonymous work, an accusation that could never be made about Penderecki's earlier compositions.

Several concertos (for violin, cello, and viola) written around the same time as the second symphony confirmed that Penderecki had made a compete break with his past.  "The avant-garde gave one an illusion of universalism," he commented in 1993.  "I was quick to realize ... that this novelty, this experimentalism and formal speculation, is more destructive than constructive.... I was saved from the avant-garde snare of formalism by a return to tradition."  Two years later, in 1995, he completed his Symphony No. 3, a work begun in 1988.  This is a major work, an homage to the past recalling composers such as Mahler and Bartok, and a consolidation of what had been begun with the Symphony No. 2.  After a quiet opening, a rhythmic pattern appears, serving as a motto for the work.  It underlies the development in the second movement, is dormant in the third, and comes to dominate the fourth movement passacaglia.  Twin preoccupations with percussive drive and an intense counterpoint assert themselves.  If there is a link to the old Penderecki in this work, it is his ability to maintain an almost unbearable tension.  Even in the slow movement, with its emphasis on cantabile melody scored for flutes, strings and horn, the tension breaks through in outbursts from the full orchestra.  Here and elsewhere, one is reminded of the music of Allan Pettersson, but with Penderecki, the tension comes from a sense of discipline and control.

Penderecki's Symphony No. 4 (1989) was begun after but finished before the Symphony No. 3.  The hallmarks of the previous work are all here, but the emotional effect is more ambiguous.  Whereas rhythmic momentum invariably led to orchestral climaxes in the earlier work, in the fourth symphony such momentum is more often dissipated than resolved.  In many ways, it makes for a richer and more complex listening experience since one is never sure which way the music will develop.  The Symphony No. 5 (1992) exhibits a greater willingness to experiment with orchestral textures.  While it is still a far cry from the Threnody, the greater adventurousness suggests that Penderecki is trying to find a way of reopening the concerns of his younger self in the more traditional context in which he now composes.

Unfortunately, by making such a sharp break with his past, Krzysztof Penderecki has made critics out of some former supporters (not including musicians such as Anne-Sophie Mutter, who remains a stanch advocate and who recently premiered Penderecki's Violin Concerto No. 2 "Metamorphosen"); but make no mistake, he stands with György Ligeti as the most significant European composer of his generation working today.  These disks illuminate one facet of Penderecki's work, his treatment of the orchestra, but there is a wealth of chamber music, concertos, operas and choral music (the St. Luke's Passion of 1966, an adventurous and accessible work, has long been considered his masterpiece) worthy of exploration.  Antoni Wit, a former student of the composer, has long been a supporter of his music and his performances are sure handed and authoritative.

Tony Gualtieri
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