About this Recording
8.554491 - PENDERECKI, K.: Symphony No. 3 / Threnody (Polish National Radio Symphony, Wit)
English 

Krzysztof Penderecki (b.1933)
Orchestral Works Vol. 1
Symphony No. 3; Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima for 52 Strings
Fluorescences for orchestra; De Natura Sonoris II for Orchestra

Penderecki was born in Dubica, a small town in Poland between Cracow and L'vov, and studied at Cracow Academy of Music and the Jagiellonian University. He first showed himself to be a composer of enormous talent and bold imagination at the Warsaw Autumn Festivals of 1959 and 1960.

Penderecki quickly became part of the European avant-garde, achieving fame with his Threnody (1960) and a number of other pieces, in which he imparted a keen expressivity to his then 'sonorist' musical language. The St Luke Passion (1963-5) proved how successful this expressive sonorism could be in sacred music. He continued to be as inspired by timeless religious themes as by humanism. His cantatas, oratorios and dramatic compositions, performed all around the world, include Dies Irae (1967), Devils of Loudun (1969), Cosmogony (1970), Utrenya (1970-71), Canticum Canticorum (1973) and Magnificat (1974).

Looking back, Penderecki explained his great stylistic shift: 'The avant-garde gave one an illusion of universalism. The musical world of Stockhausen, Nono, Boulez and Cage was for us, the young – hemmed in by the aesthetics of socialist realism, then the official canon in our country – a liberation. It opened a new reality, a new vision of art and of the world. I was quick to realise, however, that this novelty, this experimentation and formal speculation, is more destructive than constructive; I realised the Utopian quality of its Promethean tone. I was saved from the avant-garde snare of formalism by a return to tradition' (1993).

In the mid-1970s, this involvement with tradition became deeper, when Penderecki entered into a dialogue with music he 'rediscovered' for himself. He internalised the post-Romantic tradition and combined it with the technical achievements of his earlier music. Major works written in this new style soon followed: concertos for violin (1976), cello (1982) and viola (1983), Symphony No. 2 'Christmas' (1980), the opera Paradise Lost (1978), Te Deum (1980) and Polish Requiem (1980-84).

Further formal and stylistic investigations led Penderecki to foreswear post-Romanticism, in favour of a new approach to the synthesis of the modern with the traditional. This inspired operas of such stylistic diversity as the expressionist Black Mask (1986) and the post-modern Ubu Rex (1991). The composer advocated the need for 'unifying all that has been' to create a synthetic and universal language. 'What I have been doing,' he said in an interview of 1997, 'has been to collect and to transform the experience of the entire century.' Compositions drawing on this new musical aesthetic included Symphonies Nos. 3 (1988-95), 4 (1989) and 5 (1992); concertos for flute (1993) and violin (No. 2, 1995) and, most importantly, the oratorios Seven Gates of Jerusalem (1996) and Credo (1998). This last synthesis is associated with a condensed expression and a limited, purified array of technical means. 'Today, having gone through the post-Romantic lesson, and having exhausted the potential of postmodern thinking, I see my artistic ideal in 'claritas' (1997).

The appearance of Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshimo was a major event. The piece contained previously unheard means of powerful expression – explosive and liberating. By employing both known and unknown modes of articulation, 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.

The series of sonorist events opens unexpectedly with a poignant cry in the highest possible register. It ushers in an orgy of hissing, 'noise' and rasps, played in all possible ways. The music intensifies with series of clusters, subdued at first, then glissando aggressive and rising. After a while, they recede before a sequence of pointillistically-scattered sounds which, despite sounding improvised, are intricately woven into a 36-voice canon. The streams of clusters return, rising to the full 52 voices – first in a cry, then dying down to pppp.

'I had written this piece,' the composer once reminisced, 'and I named it, much as in Cage's manner, 8'37". But it existed only in my imagination, in a somewhat abstract way. When Ian Krenz recorded it and I could listen to an actual performance, I was struck with the emotional charge of the work. I thought it would be a waste to condemn it to such anonymity, to those 'digits'. I searched for associations and, in the end, I decided to dedicate it to the Hiroshima victims' (1994).

Fluorescences for orchestra (1961) was written a year after Threnody and almost immediately after Polymorphia, as a continuation of his experiments with sound. Yet in Fluorescences he goes towards – even beyond – the boundaries of sonorism' s potential. He did this in two ways: first, he augmented his forces to a full orchestra, with quadruple wind and brass and, above all a percussion section of vast dimensions: 32 instruments for six players. Secondly, he expanded the repertoire of the orchestra with a series of 'instruments' worthy of a Hieronymus Bosch. Unconventional ways of playing conventional instruments, such as the percussive use of strings, playing the interior of the piano or mouthpieces, were evidently not enough for Penderecki. He thus employed instruments such as an alarm siren and flexatone, pieces of wood, tin and glass, Swiss cowbells, Mexican guiros, Javanese gongs and a typewriter. One might say that Penderecki penetrated beyond the sphere of musical 'sound', into that of purely acoustic phenomena known from the modern world at large.

Listening to Fluorescences is a fascinating adventure. At first, one is shocked by the explosion of sound described by W. Schwinger as 'radically cruel' (1994). Their expressive force is heightened by a use of extreme dynamic contrasts as well as of colour. One is soon drawn into the endless display of sonorist snapshots, much in the manner of 'avant la lettre' video clips. The greatest surprise comes towards the piece's apex: the orgy of sound, more akin to chaos than music, recedes before a single note – a pure C, presented by all instruments and in all possible ways. The coda reverts to the previous variety of sound.

Penderecki composed Fluorescences for the Donaueschingen Contemporary Music Festival of 1962. Its performance, by the South-West German Radio Symphony Orchestra under Hans Rosbaud, was received as an artistic provocation, which might have been the exact function of the work. As the composer wrote in the concert programme: 'In this composition, all I'm interested in is liberating sound beyond all tradition' (1962).

De Natura Sonoris II for orchestra (1971), an orchestra miniature, alludes to apiece written five years before, De Natura Sonoris I (1966), though it is wholly different. It takes a restrained approach towards pure-sound experimentation, with an aloofness from easy and crude effects. Written for a notably limited orchestra – no woodwind or trumpets, few percussion – it seems to favour subtler tones and colours. While its predecessor seems to be painted with sound, a somewhat lurid 'still life', the second could be described as a 'sonorist narration'.

It begins mysteriously, with the lingering, plaintive voice – perdendosi – of two particular instruments: flûte à coulisse (piston flute) and musical saw, in combination with the sound of the violas. These sounds return to end the piece: in-­between, string clusters and blocks of brass present a musical soundscape that rises and falls. A magnificent, inevitable climax occurs, followed by a calm decline to the final niente. In this music, one feels the presence not of a sorcerer's apprentice, but of the great master.

Symphony No. 3 (1988-95) is the work of a mature mind, construed slowly and painstakingly. 'I've been writing my Third Symphony for seven years,' Penderecki said in an interview. 'Two movements were written in 1988 and performed at the festival in Lucerne as a separate piece, Passacaglia and Rondo. But I've known all along it was going to be a symphony. (…) It's just that my ideas take a long time to mature' (1997).

As early as its initial outline, the work was to consist of five movements: an Introduction, Scherzo, Passacaglia, Adagio, and closing Rondo. Only their order was modified in the final version. In 1995, Penderecki composed the first three movements, using the two written in 1988 to conclude the whole.

1. Andante con moto is an indication of what is to come. Low strings obstinately beat a memento-­like motif, a sound at a time. Strings take off in a series of minor seconds, only to stop on an outlandish chord.

2. Allegro con brio functions as Act One of this symphonic drama. Timpani and strings enter violently with a motive of Beethovenian aplomb, one that will dominate the entire Allegro. There is a tension-packed interplay of the full orchestra and a series of great solo cadenzas. Alarming, contemplative, then lamenting sounds from the trumpets and violas periodically restrain this constant gallop. An episode filled with the sounds of the tom-tom, roto-tom and bongo betrays, in its dry, diabolic tone, the proximity of The Black Mask.

3. Adagio is a particularly beautiful movement. Its music is contemplative, lyrical, nostalgic. Strings – then horn, flute and piccolo – sing a ceaseless song, reminiscing on the past. For a moment the orchestra explodes violently, only to recede into the mood of a marcia funebre. Yet the initial song recurs, leading to a euphonic apotheosis, possibly with metaphysical connotations.

4. Passacaglia interrupts the contemplative mood with a vengeance. It evokes the aura of an antique tragedy, severe and ominous. Low strings reiterate the note D obstinately, obsessively – straining the listener's attention to its very limits. The theme, built of highly specific intervals – ninths and tritones – finds it increasingly difficult to break through the growing denseness of sound, which gradually builds into a tumult, a shriek. Then – silence, followed by the 'call' of the bass trumpet, the plaintive English horn, and the subdued cantabile of seven cellos.

5. Scherzo – Vivace is built on continual movement, on the obsessive repetition of a single, primal motive. It has a spirit and form not unlike that of Beethoven's last Scherzos, and much of the temperament of Mahler's symphonies, or of Goya's Caprichos. Some of its passages remind one of a witches' Sabbath, or a danse macabre. This frenzied moto perpetuo is arrested twice, giving way to episodes which, in their sparer texture, echo a traditional trio. The first of these, is a dialogue of winds, grazioso and scherzando. The second, dominated by the dark colouring of low instruments and gestures from the tom-tom and xylophone, once again ushers in the demoniac aura of The Black Mask. A powerful coda ends the symphony with truly Beethovenian gusto.

In his Third Symphony, Penderecki has produced a work consciously related to the great symphonies of the past century, yet clearly of the present era. Alternately moving, shocking and enthralling, it is among the most eminent pieces of the genre at the close of the century.

Translation and adaptation by Jan Rybicki and Richard Whitehouse


Close the window