Penderecki: Capriccio for Violin & Orchestra, Etc

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Strangely compelling. You would expect Krzysztof Penderecki to draw the best out of his musicians in his own work, especially after an impressive track record...
Strangely compelling.

You would expect Krzysztof Penderecki to draw the best out of his musicians in his own work, especially after an impressive track record in this field in the past. I listened to the re-release of his recordings for EMI from the 1970s, and these are still impressive even when compared with this new digital recording.

Taking the Capriccio, the earlier recording is a tad more compact at 11:38, but easily equals the new recording in terms of drama. The soloist is set closer with the new recording, so that the balance is less natural in terms of what you might experience in the concert hall, but in all other respects this new recording is an improvement. The detail in terms of instrumentation comes through far more clearly – percussion of course, but all of those other sliding and quivering exotic sounds from all quarters, like the bowed saw for instance, are revealed in all their glory. I’ll still listen to the earlier recording for its chilling atmosphere, but recommend the new one for sheer clarity.

De Natura Sonoris No.2 is an early 1970s chiller classic, continuing and developing some of the textures in Capriccio in a purely orchestral context. Again comparing the EMI recording, made when the piece was brand new, this new Dux version has more immediacy and clarity, but more importantly shows up some of the ways in which Penderecki’s view on the work has changed over the years. There are some dynamic differences in the balance here and there, and those dry, choking clusters in the strings in the beginning are taken more slowly and with less of a sense of murderous drama. Strangely, even though the new recording is a good two minutes shorter than the old one, the new version seems slower: listening to the cacophonous brass and strings beyond four minutes into the piece, there is a greater sense of drive and urgency in the old EMI version. Where Penderecki saves time in the new recording is by compressing the longer stretches of static atmosphere earlier in the work, which are less of a novelty these days. Either way, the old analogue tape coped badly with those fireman’s bells and the sheer weight of noise from the massed brass and percussion in this work, making this new recording a welcome alternative. The sliding brass beyond 5:00, with its conversational interruptions, is a definite goose-bump moment, and the final held note under that scraped percussion is like a small chorus of drowned angels.

Penderecki’s more recent style, in any case since the ultra-romanticism of the early 1980s, has in some way proved even more controversial than his earlier avant-gardism, and the Piano Concerto does sit rather strangely with its ghostly forebears on this disc. The work was written after a great deal of procrastination by the composer, who “refrained from writing a piano concerto for many years because I was afraid [of the] many excellent concertos written in the 20th century.” The final push came from a commission from New York, with Emanuel Ax and the Philadelphia Orchestra in mind as performers. Started in June 2001, the work was originally to have followed the Capriccio design, but after the terrorist attacks of September 2001 the light-hearted nature of such a title seemed inappropriate. The work took on a more serious character, and the non-religious title ‘resurrection’, which refers to mankind’s universal desire for renewal and re-birth after disaster and crisis.

The style of the work is linked to Penderecki’s 1996 seventh Symphony, The Seven Gates of Jerusalem, but also integrates the grand stylistic gestures of Mahler and some of the romanticism of the great piano composers such as Rachmaninov. At over 30 minutes in duration it certainly has a symphonic scale, and with no intermission between any of the sections the uninterrupted musical narrative is a ride of considerable intensity. If I have any problem with this work – and I do consider it a substantial masterpiece – it is the difficulty one has in establishing an individual character to either the source, the composer, or the intended message – the expressive aim. I don’t claim that all music should have immediate clarity in either of these aspects, but I doubt if I have any colleagues even in the musical fraternity who would be able to put their finger on what is going on here. I don’t mean this in a technical sense – the work is about as difficult to listen to as Shostakovich’s 1st Symphony; but in terms of where, what, why, huh?

The booklet notes may have something of an answer to give. ‘The piano part is treated in a very original way in as much as… it explores first and foremost the piano’s percussive qualities.’ Yes, but not ‘in contrast to the major works of the piano literature’ as far as the 20th century goes: composers since Bartók have been doing little else. In any case, there is plenty of running up and down the keyboard in fairly standard romantic style, so I don’t feel any great claims can be made for originality in the solo part. More telling is that ‘the sound idiom employed by the composer harks back to the great symphonic tradition of the turn on the 19th century’. This push-me-pull-you treatment results in something akin to Saint-Saëns and Busoni fighting under a duvet, with the eclectic spirit of John Adams and the hothouse mania of Scriabin acting as referees. One of the central elements in the piece is a chorale, whose introduction at 7:10 is sheer White-Christmas Hollywood. The whole thing quasi-concludes with a final massive statement of this main chorale ‘theme’ at 28:17, with recorded bells kicking in at 29:23 which are as corny as hell. The only thing we miss at this point is a few blasts from a cannon, and the spirit of Tchaikovsky might be appeased as well: the title ‘resurrection’ might as well stand for a ‘revival’ of this way of expressing triumph of the human spirit over destructive forces.

Despite all this the Piano Concerto is strangely compelling – one of those works you know you’ll be playing again, if only to remind yourself of the strange conundrums it proposes – was it really like that? Yes, it really is, and one has to stand in awe of the way in which Penderecki rather audaciously and uniquely creates a new work out of such a gallimaufry of antique recipes. I do however wonder quite what place it will ultimately take in the canon of 21st century musical art.

-- Dominy Clements, MusicWeb International

Product Description:

  • Release Date: January 01, 2000

  • UPC: 5902547005829

  • Catalog Number: DUX582

  • Label: DUX

  • Number of Discs: 1

  • Composer: Krzysztof Penderecki

  • Conductor: Krzysztof Penderecki

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra Katowice

  • Performer: Beata Bilinska, Patrycja Piekutowska