About this Recording
8.570509 - PENDERECKI, K.: Concerto Grosso No. 1 for 3 Cellos / Largo / Sonata for Cello and Orchestra (Monighetti, Noras, Kwiatkowski, Wit)
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Krzysztof Penderecki (b. 1933):
Concerto Grosso No. 1 • Largo • Cello Sonata


Although he remains best known for his choral and symphonic works, Krzysztof Penderecki has also amassed a sizeable concerto output. His early works for soloist and orchestra had tended to be short and also self-contained pieces that evinced a fair measure of virtuosity, while fighting shy of the rhetorical expression with which the concerto genre has so often been associated (hence the Sonata for Cello and Orchestra below). With his First Violin Concerto [Naxos 8.555265] of 1976, however, Penderecki came up not only with a large-scale concerto, but also one whose unabashed Romanticism itself marked the decisive break with his avant-garde past. Written for Isaac Stern, it has remained among the composer’s most often heard works, and was followed up by the hardly less emotionally wrought Second Cello Concerto (1982) for Mstislav Rostropovich, the smaller-scale concertos for Viola (1983) and Flute (1992), then the Second Violin Concerto (1995) written for Anne-Sophie Mutter [Naxos 8.555265], the Piano Concerto (2002) and the Horn Concerto (2008). There are also several concertante works for soloist(s) and orchestra that are not designated as concertos, two of which are featured on this disc.

Conceived for three cellos and orchestra, the First Concerto Grosso was completed in 2001 (a successor for five clarinets and orchestra followed four years later) and was first performed on 22nd June that year in Tokyo, the soloists being the late Boris Pergamenschikow, Truls Mørk and Han-Na Chang, with the NHK Symphony Orchestra conducted by Charles Dutoit. Penderecki has here made full use of the potential for solo and ensemble playing between instruments, with the orchestra similarly used en masse and in more chamber-like groupings. The six movements play without a break and interlock to form a unified whole.

The first movement begins with speculative gestures that are shared between lower strings, before one of the cellos makes an impassioned entrance. The other two cellos soon enter, and an often ruminative dialogue ensues between them, punctuated by orchestral interjections. After a passage underpinned by sustained cello polyphony, the tension increases as the music heads to a brief climax before easing into an eloquent threnody which brings about the close. The second movement then commences with jagged rhythms in the lower strings along with militaristic gestures from the percussion. The cellos are quickly drawn into this incisive discourse, replete with angular contributions from xylophone, before the tension subsides. An ascending line from oboe leads directly to the third movement, in which an impulsive motion and fanfare-like gestures from brass alternate with more subdued writing for the cellos. A passage of pulsating expectancy is reached, followed by a crescendo of activity which is sustained through to the close. The Notturno fourth movement then starts with a passionate surge of intensity across the strings, providing an emotional plateau from where the cellos pursue a further sustained discourse. A sudden outburst from brass and percussion presages the fifth movement, an intensive ‘fantasy’ on all of the motifs to have been heard so far but with a gentler passage featuring cor anglais solo that counters the prevailing activity. From here, the cellos begin to steer the music towards a climax, followed by a three-way cadenza which itself draws on the soloists’ thematic material. This is succeeded by the sixth movement, initiated by a return of the cor anglais theme and then focusing on a reflective discourse between cellos and orchestra as the work heads towards its calm but always questioning conclusion.

Despite its title, the Largo for Cello and Orchestra is actually a fully-fledged concerto for soloist and orchestra that might almost have been designated the composer’s ‘third’ such work for cello, though there being no fast movement may have decided Penderecki against this. He finished it in 2003, again to commission from Rostropovich, and it was the latter who gave the première in Vienna on 19 June 2005, the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Seiji Ozawa.

The first movement opens with spare writing for the soloist, presently joined by other lower strings as the music gains gradually in intensity. Wind and percussion frequently shadow their colleagues in what often comes close to a parody of the main material, though the prevailing mood remains one of resignation and regret. The music rises higher and higher (with the tuned percussion much in evidence), before the second movement commences with a chorale-like idea on woodwind that drives the soloist to new heights of fervency, spilling over into a propulsive march that draws on the full orchestra and against which the soloist utters vigorous protestations. This brings about a powerful climax, subsiding to leave the soloist ‘suspended’ against an ethereal texture of upper woodwind and tuned percussion. Halting string writing now effects a dissonant crescendo, which itself leads into a relatively short final movement. This is a condensed resumé of what has gone before, with a return of the martial music and a restrained apotheosis where the soloist withdraws against a background of chiming bells and tramping timpani into the enveloping valediction of the closing bars.

In form and expression, both of these works are a long way from the Sonata for Cello and Orchestra that Penderecki composed in 1964, and which was given its première later that year by Siegfried Palm with the South-West German Radio Symphony Orchestra and Ernest Bour. As mentioned, all of the composer’s earlier such pieces are relatively lightweight affairs: the Sonata was followed by two Capriccios (for oboe and violin) and, like those, leavens its virtuosity with ironic and even playful qualities unusual for contemporary music of this period. There are two short but highly contrasted movements.

The first movement pursues a gradual opening-out of the material shared by soloist and orchestra, and with the sustained writing of the former pitted against increasingly dissonant chord sequences from the latter. Any more substantial discourse between the two is prevented by the gestural nature of the musical ideas. After the glowering climax has receded beyond earshot, the closing movement is launched with sardonic gestures from the soloist, extended by non-tuned percussion and a plethora of effects in the strings. This activity fairly propels the music forward to its aggressive but by no means humourless ending.

Richard Whitehouse

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