About this Recording
8.572032 - PENDERECKI, K.: Credo / Cantata in honorem Almae Matris Universitatis Iagellonicae sescentos abhinc annos fundatae (Warsaw Philharmonic, Wit)

Krzysztof Penderecki (b. 1933)


Surprising as 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 ostensibly radical orchestral works as Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima (1961) and Fluorescences (1962) [both on Naxos 8.554491], its stark simplicity and emotional directness led—and not for the last time in his career—to accusations of his having turned his back on musical progress. Worth remembering, though, is Penderecki’s stance—of a progressive composer within the conformist environment of post-Stalinist Poland, and as a devout Catholic within 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 of faith when the opportunity arose in 1964: the Passio et mors Domini nostri Iesu Christi secundum Lucam, or St Luke Passion [8.557149], being the outcome. Moreover, its sheer diversity of technique allied to its expressive immediacy amounted to a paradigm for the large-scale choral works he has since composed—Dies Irae (1967) [8.570450], Kosmagonia (1970), Utrenja (1971) [8.572031], Magnificat (1974), Te Deum (1979) [8.557980], Polish Requiem (1984) [8.557386/7], Seven Gates of Jerusalem (1996) [8.557766] and Credo (1998).

The final two pieces are notable in that their formal processes and musical content are more inherently symphonic than with those earlier choral works (indeed, Penderecki chose to designate Seven Gates of Jerusalem as his Seventh Symphony). Composed during 1997–98, to a commission from the Oregon Bach Festival and its conductor Helmuth Rilling, Credo sets only the central and longest portion of the liturgical Mass. This has long been the section in which a composer’s own spiritual and religious beliefs are made manifest (one need only think of Beethoven’s treatment of this text in his Missa Solemnis), and Penderecki is no exception in instilling his subject-matter with a unmistakably personal conviction such as holds steadfast however volatile the surrounding context. The work’s division into nine sections further underlines the sense of ideas being developed then reprised.

The first section, Credo in unum Deum, commences with implacable unison voices against a powerful orchestral backdrop. The bass soloist intones a solemn incantation, with female voices continuing reticently, before the female soloists enter in an imploring manner. Low brass then introduce a plaintive passage for oboe over strings and harp, which provides an atmospheric postlude to the preceding music. The second section, Qui propter nos homines, begins with vigorous writing for strings which is soon taken up by the chorus. The tenor soloist strikes a more lyrical note, before upper voices and brass share a series of animated exchanges on a motif of almost Baroque-like vigour. This then alternates with more impassive contributions from the mezzo and tenor soloists, leading directly into the third section, Et incarnatus est, which opens with a passage of noble polyphony for the strings—over which the mezzo-soprano unfolds an expressive solo with evocative touches from tuned percussion and muted brass. The inward mood is furthered by equally atmospheric writing for the woodwind (notably cor anglais and flute) over a serene accompaniment for the strings, winding down to a natural pause. The fourth section, Crucifixus etiam pro nobis, is launched by ominous fanfare-like gestures for the brass, against which are heard uncertain gestures from the mezzo-soprano and bass soloists. The brass writing becomes more elaborate while remaining relatively understated, then the solo quartet join with the boys’ and female voices in a passage of mounting intensity that gradually returns to the initial brass fanfares. The fifth section, Crucem tuam adoramus, Domine, follows without pause and in subdued textures for divided strings and low brass. Boys’ then female voices add their discreet presence, before the soprano commences an impassioned solo with an eloquent countermelody from oboe. Female voices continue this pensive mood, as do solo brass then woodwind, with a forceful but shortlived interjection from full chorus. The sixth section, Et resurrexit tertia die, breaks decisively with this mood in its martial music for percussion and terse writing for chorus. This subsides with tolling bells, followed by gaunt writing for the brass. A passage for a cappella choir sees renewed orchestral activity, with choral writing spoken as well as sung, but the climax subsides with plangent trombones and an eloquent response from solo tenor. The seventh section, Et in Spiritum Sanctum, opens forcefully with full chorus then continues with an elaborate passage for all four soloists which builds to a powerful climax that involves the whole chorus and orchestra. Several salient motifs from earlier in the work are now brought to the fore, before hieratic writing for individual brass along with the sound of bells winds this section down to an equivocal pause. The eighth section, Confiteor unum baptisma, commences in the depths of the orchestra with unearthly writing for percussion and anxious intoning from the chorus. The vocal quartet has a further elaborate passage, before the bass soloist continues alone and brings back the initial, percussion-driven music that rapidly climaxes in an impulsive outburst for the full orchestra, carrying over into the ninth and final section, Et vitam venturi saeculi, which begins as a sustained apotheosis for soloists, chorus and orchestra. This, however, subsides to leave boys’ voices in stark relief, after which brass and bells emerge over a backdrop of strings to guide the music through to a conclusion of glowering choral and orchestral chords, though with the bright sound of trumpets pointedly remaining at the very close.

The Cantata hails from an earlier stage in Penderecki’s development. Composed in 1964, the work’s full title, Cantata in honorem Almae Matris Universitatis Iagellonicae sescentos abhinc annos fundatae, explains it as a commemoration of the six hundredth anniversary of the founding of the Jagellonian University near Kraków. Recognized as one of the primary centres of learning in Central Europe, the institution endured centuries of political conflict, culminating in the plundering of its paintings and manuscript holdings by Nazi forces at the start of the Second World War. Penderecki’s brief yet potent response is thus as much a commemoration as a celebration of the university’s survival.

Implacable strokes from the bass drum and sustained unisons in the lower brass provide a powerful backdrop for the initial choral entry, but this soon tails off into fugitive pizzicato writing for the double basses, followed by an arresting choral passage with its recourse to spoken as well as sung writing. Around the mid-way point, the music arrives at a softly dissonant instrumental cluster, before the chorus gradually reemerges in a series of overlapping entries that are finally joined by the orchestra in a brief but decisive climax. A solitary stroke on the bass drum rounds-off the work as if by marking a return to its beginning.

Richard Whitehouse

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