About this Recording
8.557386-87 - PENDERECKI, K.: Polish Requiem (Klosinska, Rappe, Minkiewicz, Nowacki, Warsaw National Philharmonic, Wit)
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Krzysztof Penderecki (b. 1933)
A Polish Requiem

Surprising as it now seems, the appearance in 1962 of the Stabat Mater by Krysztof Penderecki caused a furore in avant-garde music circles. Coming after such radical orchestral works as Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima (1961) and Fluorescences (1962) [both Naxos 8.554491], its stark simplicity and emotional directness led, not for the last time in his career, to accusations of turning his back on musical progress. Worth remembering is Penderecki’s stance, as a progressive composer in the conformist environment of post-Stalinist Poland, and as a devout Catholic in a nominally atheist society. The Stabat Mater was among the first open expressions of faith in Poland since World War Two, and Penderecki did not hesitate to incorporate it into a more comprehensive expression of his faith when the opportunity arose in 1964, with Passio et mors Domini nostri Iesu Christi secundum Lucam, or St Luke Passion [Naxos 8.557149], being the outcome. The diversity of choral and orchestral techniques employed was to prove a paradigm for the choral works Penderecki has since composed, Dies Irae (1967), Kosmagonia (1970), Utrenja (1971), Magnificat (1973), Te Deum (1979), A Polish Requiem (1984), Seven Gates of Jerusalem (1996) and Credo (1998).

When considering A Polish Requiem, the background to its composition must be taken into account. First came the Lacrimosa, written in 1980 for Lech Walesa and his trade union Solidarity as an in memoriam for the Gdansk dock-workers who died during confrontations with the authorities ten years earlier. Then came the Agnus Dei, composed in 1981 as a memorial tribute to the Polish religious figure Cardinal Wyszynski, followed a year later by the Recordare Jesu pie, written to mark the beatification of Father Maximilian Kolbe who, in 1941, volunteered to die in Auschwitz in place of another prisoner and his family. In 1984 came the Dies Irae (not to be confused with the 1967 composition), as a fortieth anniversary remembrance of the Warsaw uprising against Nazi occupation. The work, as it stood thus far, received its first performance in Stuttgart, conducted by Mstislav Rostropovich, on 28th September 1984. Nine years later the Sanctus was added and the complete work was first performed at a Penderecki festival in Stockholm, the composer conducting, on 11th November 1993.

Written for four soloists, large mixed chorus and an orchestra featuring quadruple wind and six horns, A Polish Requiem is among Penderecki’s largest works of the 1980s and a work in which the Neo-Romanticism of his music from the latter 1970s, notably the First Violin Concerto [Naxos 8.555265], the opera Paradise Lost and the Second Symphony [Naxos 8.554492], is combined with the more experimental procedures of his earlier years. The Second Cello Concerto of 1982 marks an important stage in the evolution of this ‘pluralist’ thinking; one which is extended in the present work to take account both of pure tonality and aleatoric ‘noise’, as well as most aspects in between. A vital unifying factor is the traditional Polish hymn Swiety Boze (Holy, Almighty and Eternal God, have mercy upon us), which impinges on the music in many and varied ways: a potent symbol of the work’s purpose as a requiem for the sufferings of the Polish nation past, present and future.

The Introitus opens the work in a suitably grave and austere manner, building in one of Penderecki’s characteristic stepwise ascents to a bleak culmination, replete with the chime of bells. The Kyrie is initially hushed and inward, the entry of the soloists only heightening the supplicatory mood as it rises in a crescendo of despair. The Dies Irae sequence commences with shrieking strings and martial trumpets, intensified in the Tuba mirum by the addition of heavy brass and a commanding tenor solo. The Mors stupebit features a mezzo solo of operatic fervency, furthered in a slithering orchestral interlude and a choral contribution where chord-clusters and glissandi evoke the Last Judgement in no uncertain terms. This dies down to a pause, from where the Quid sum miser sounds forth in disembodied tones, emerging onto a gaunt harmonic plateau before retreating into the depths.

The Rex tremendae, brief but implacable, is largely taken up by a bass solo. Then after a dramatic pause, comes the Recordare Jesu pie, focal point of the work’s musical and conceptual thinking. It is here that Penderecki combines the Swiety Boze hymn with the Recordare melody derived from it; soprano and mezzo at length intertwined with tenor and bass in a contrapuntal elaboration of the two themes which is highly chromatic in its harmonic movement. Brusque orchestral writing opens the Ingemisco tanquam reus, the confrontational mood intensified by aggressively syllabic choral writing and frequent percussion onslaughts. The entry of the soloists ushers in a more beseeching mood, leading to the return of the chorus and a resumption of the music heard at the outset. The unexpectedly quiet ending, as if the tension has suddenly drained out of the music, prepares for the Lacrimosa, which feels somehow conciliatory in its elegiac writing for soprano and female voices.

The Sanctus is in three main parts. Lower strings and solo clarinet ruminate on aspects of the main theme, further elaborated by the mezzo-soprano soloist. After a powerfully-wrought climax, the second section begins with the return of the clarinet, anticipating what is to become the underlying theme of the Benedictus. This is now taken up by the tenor soloist, before a further appearance of the clarinet initiates the final section. Here both Sanctus and Benedictus themes are freely combined, mezzo-soprano and tenor joining with the chorus in a climax which thematically joins hands with the Lacrimosa at the work’s emotional epi-centre. The Agnus Dei follows as an expressive pendant, unaccompanied chorus intoning the text in what is the most forthright and unaffected passage of the whole work. Double basses at the bottom of their register underpin the Lux aeterna, over which overlapping choral textures and unison orchestral chords create a highly telling evocation of ‘eternal light’.

A much more dramatic turn is taken by the Libera me Domine, with its ringing discords and dramatic soprano solo. Earlier ideas, notably those from the Dies irae sequence, return, as the work reaches a dramatic climax. The four soloists forcefully sound out the main text, as, rather more fragmentarily, does the chorus as the music reaches an equivocal pause. An abbreviated version of the Offertorium (omitted from its customary place earlier in the sequence) now follows. Searching strings are joined by the chorus, then, after a further imploring contribution from the solo quartet, punctuated by percussive strokes, the music moves effortfully but surely into the Libera animas. This appeal for deliverance of the faithful departed rises in a powerful double crescendo of feeling, so concluding, in emotionally unequivocal terms, A Polish Requiem, a work in which Penderecki sums up everything that preoccupied his country at a time of crisis … in the anticipation of life to come.

Richard Whitehouse


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