Plenty of Penderecki

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Richard S. Ginell - From Out of the The WestBy Richard S. Ginell: From Out of the West

Some have written that Naxos’s brave, long-term project of recording all of Krzysztof Penderecki’s orchestral and choral works has been going mostly under the radar amidst the blizzard of Naxos releases every month.  Now there is one quick way in which to start catching up.  All of the completed Penderecki symphonies have been gathered together in a discount-priced five-CD boxed set, led with eloquence and bite by Naxos’s main man in Poland, Antony Wit. Since starting the cycle way back in 1998, Wit has been gradually, patiently making the case that Penderecki may well be one of the great extenders of a symphonic tradition that was thought to be on life support.

As per Penderecki’s track record of throwing curve balls to his following, his symphony cycle has its own set of rules and logic. The Symphony No. 1 is the furthest out in language, full of the weird sonic sheets and effects that made Penderecki famous (or notorious), while the Symphony No. 2 switches to a highly-emotive neo-Romantic style that caused many of his new-music fans to figuratively cry “Judas!” in protest.   Then the chronology gets strange, for Penderecki started the Symphony No. 3, broke it off to write the Symphonies Nos. 4 and 5, and only afterwards finished the Third. As a result, the Third sounds more adventurous than the Fourth and Fifth as Penderecki was re-introducing some of the avant-garde effects that he had temporarily abandoned earlier.

Apparently there is no Symphony No. 6 per se – Penderecki sketched out a full concept but hasn’t bothered to finish it yet! – and after writing an ominously-dramatic hour-long oratorio, Seven Gates Of Jerusalem, he decided to call that his Symphony No. 7.  The Symphony No. 8 is also an anomaly, a 12-movement choral/vocal song cycle with texts by German poets (Lieder der Vergänglichkeit) that lightens his language and textures and introduces an element of fantasy not really heard before in the cycle. Reportedly, Penderecki is interested in writing a Ninth Symphony, which would really be his Eighth at this point – and thus not eligible for the alleged curse of the Ninth.

Whatever the quirks, this is a mighty impressive cycle as it stands, one occasionally colored by the influence of Shostakovich in its brooding anguish but also by a subliminal yet unmistakeable nationalistic tinge. The sound is excellent, showing off Penderecki in a flattering, opulent light, and two of the discs contain extra works, including the shock-treatment piece that put the composer on the map, Threnody For the Victims of Hiroshima.

Meanwhile, Wit and Naxos continue to knock out new entries in their Penderecki project – a recent one being a splendid, highly-varied grab-bag spanning 40 years. Along the way, the program takes in the exciting, avant-garde Anaklasis for Strings and Percussion and Fonogrammi for Flute and Chamber Orchestra from 1960 and 1961, and a terrific performance of the revised 1971 Partita for Harpsichord, Electric Guitar, Bass Guitar, Harp, Double Bass and Orchestra before jumping abruptly to the recent (2009), surreal, neo-Romantic Horn Concerto (Winterreise).

And Penderecki himself continues to conduct, sharing a recent Nonesuch disc with Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood where the latter “responds” to new Penderecki performances of Threnody and Polymorphia with the Aukso Orchestra. The Threnody remains as biting and shocking a piece as ever in the composer’s hands, and Polymorphia’s crescendos of wild effects still achieve impressive detonation. Greenwood’s own pieces Popcorn Superhet Receiver and 48 Responses to Polymorphia aren’t bad, either, though when placed after Penderecki’s bracing pieces, they merely add an Amen to what has already been said.