About this Recording
8.557766 - PENDERECKI, K.: Seven Gates of Jerusalem, "'Symphony No. 7" (Warsaw Philharmonic, Wit)
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Krzysztof Penderecki (b. 1933)
Symphony No. 7 'Seven Gates of Jerusalem'

Surprising though it might now seem, the appearance in 1962 of the Stabat Mater by Krzysztof Penderecki caused a furore within 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 having turned his back on musical progress. Worth remembering, though, is Penderecki's stance, as a progressive composer in the conformist environment of post-Stalinist Poland, and also as a devout Catholic in a nominally atheist society. The Stabat Mater was among the first open expressions of faith in Poland since the Second World War, and Penderecki did not hesitate to incorporate it into a more comprehensive expression when the opportunity arose in 1964: the Passio et mors Domini nostri Iesu Christi secundum Lucam, or St Luke Passion [Naxos 8.557149], being the outcome. Moreover, its diversity of techniques was to prove a paradigm for choral works he has since composed, Dies Irae (1967), Kosmogonia (1970), Utrenja (1971), Magnificat (1974), Te Deum (1979), Polish Requiem (1984) [8.557386-87], Credo (1998) and Seven Gates of Jerusalem (1996).

This latter work might well be viewed as the coming together of the choral and symphonic facets across Penderecki's output. The First Symphony (1973) [Naxos 8.554567] marks the true culmination of his involvement with the 'avant-garde' experimental techniques that had brought him to prominence at the outset of the 1960s. By contrast, the Second 'Christmas' Symphony (1980) [Naxos 8.554492] is a product of the neo-Romantic idiom that the composer evolved during the mid-1970s, music that is monumental in its impact yet also inward in its expression. The large-scale Third Symphony (1995) [Naxos 8.554491] had a protracted gestation, during which period, the single-movement 'Adagio' that is the Fourth Symphony (1989) [Naxos 8.554492] had come into being, as had the Fifth Symphony (1992) [Naxos 8.554567]. All three works typify the stylistic plurality that Penderecki has pursued in the last quarter-century; the influence of Shostakovich, whose symphonies Penderecki has often conducted, being an especially potent force.

Jerusalem is a city of special significance for Penderecki, who first visited it during the aftermath of the 'Yom Kippur' War in 1974. In 1995 he was commissioned for a work to celebrate the city's third millennium, and so opted for an oratorio entitled Seven Gates of Jerusalem (according to Jewish tradition, the eighth 'golden' gate remains closed in anticipation of the Messiah's arrival). Written from April to December of 1996, it had its première in Jerusalem on 9 January 1997, the orchestra comprising members of the Jerusalem Symphony and Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestras, conducted by Lorin Maazel. The Polish première, conducted by Kazimierz Kord, took place in Warsaw on 14 March. Only then did Penderecki decide on calling the piece his Seventh Symphony, so reflecting the fact that, though a 'No. 6' had been fully worked out in concept, it had not yet been written. No. 7 is thus a choral symphony (Penderecki has since composed another, his Eighth Symphony being a setting of German poets entitled Lieder der Vergänglichkeit), scored for five soloists, speaker, three mixed choirs and also a large orchestra that includes such unusual instruments as the bass trumpet and the tubaphone.

Although it is in no sense a descriptive, let alone pictorial work, the Seventh Symphony is yet pervaded by the number 'seven' at various levels. Apart from its having seven movements, the role of seven-note phrases in the binding together of the work's thematic content is an extensive one, while the frequent presence of seven notes repeated at a single pitch will be evident even on a first hearing, as also the seven fortissimo chords bringing the seventh and final movement to an end.
The first movement starts with glowering chords on brass and percussion, against which the chorus intones lines from Psalm 48 in a mood of powerful supplication. The soloists respond with an expressive counterpoint of lines from Psalm 96, with sonorous interlude for brass and lower strings. The chorus effects a return to the opening music, and then the movement ends on a note of speculative uncertainty.

The second movement is a brief but plangent setting for the second soprano, chorus and orchestra of words from Psalm 137, and which features pulsating strings and timpani as a Pendereckian fingerprint. The third movement sets the opening verses from Psalm 130 (the famous De profundis) for unaccompanied chorus in a finely-wrought polyphony, one that unites aspects of ancient and modern in a way wholly typical of the composer. The fourth movement then opens with an assertive orchestral gesture, intensified by the use of non-tuned percussion and also string glissandi, chorus and soprano adding to the impassioned mood with verses from Psalm 137 and the Book of Isaiah.

The fifth movement functions rather as an extended scherzo within the overall formal scheme. Brass and percussion set off urgently, to which the chorus adds an ominous, even menacing touch with its setting of verses from Psalm 147. Strings and wind then have a fugato-like interlude, before the pace slackens as chamber choir and soloists enter in a mood of sustained elegy. An arresting passage now for strings with bells, followed by keening solos for piccolo, horn and flute, before chorus and soloists resume their elegiac manner. Brass and percussion, the latter suitably augmented, bring back the music from the opening, which drives through to its headlong and dramatic climax.

At its apex, the sixth movement crashes in: a setting (in Hebrew) for speaker and orchestra of verses from the Book of Ezekiel, strings, brass and percussion adding a powerfully evocative commentary, and a solo for bass trumpet to represent the 'voice of God'. Again without pause, the seventh movement commences. Baleful choral settings of verses from the Books of Jeremiah and Daniel are followed by no less intense settings for the soloists of verses from Isaiah. The movement presently takes on a summative quality, as verses from Psalms 48 and 96 set earlier in the piece are recalled in an even more intense manner. The music now proceeds to a climactic apotheosis, briefly touching on a more muted and sombre note, before the triumphal final cadence.

Richard Whitehouse


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