About this Recording
8.572212 - PENDERECKI, K.: Sinfoniettas Nos. 1 and 2 / Capriccio / 3 Pieces in Old Style / Serenade (Warsaw Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra, Wit)

Krzysztof Penderecki (b. 1933)
Three Pieces in Old Style • Serenade Intermezzo • Sinfoniettas Nos. 1 and 2 • Capriccio for Oboe and Strings


Kryzsztof Penderecki was born in Dubica, a small town between Kraków and L’vov, and studied at Kraków’s Academy of Music and Jagiellonian University. He first established himself at the Warsaw Autumn Festivals of 1959 and 1960. Quickly becoming part of the European avant-garde, he achieved fame with his Threnody [Naxos 8.554491] in which he imparted a keen expressivity to his then ‘sonorist’ musical language. The St Luke Passion [8.557149] proved how successful this idiom could be in sacred music and he continued to be inspired directly by such timeless religious themes, as is witnessed by his cantatas, oratorios and operas.

During the mid-1970s this involvement with tradition became deeper, Penderecki entering into dialogue with music that 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 include concertos for violin [8.555265], cello and viola [both 8.572211], the Second Symphony [8.554492], the opera Paradise Lost, the Te Deum [8.557980] and A Polish Requiem [8.557386/7]. Further formal and stylistic investigation led to the synthesis of the modern with the traditional. This inspired operas of stylistic diversity such as the expressionist Black Mask and the post-modern Ubu Rex. Compositions drawing on this new aesthetic included Symphonies Nos. 3, 4 and 5 [the latter on 8.554567] and the oratorios Seven Gates of Jerusalem [8.557766] and Credo [8.572032], all of these associated with both a condensed expression as well as a purified array of technical means.

The present disc focusses on Penderecki’s music for strings, a notable sub-category of his orchestral output that runs across almost the whole of his composing career. Together with other of his Polish contemporaries, he initially deployed strings in terms of their unorthodox sonorities and ability to create textures no less striking than those achieved by wind or percussion. Later, however, re-engagement with earlier musical eras often found him invoking rather more traditional idioms. The six works featured here extend across a period of over three decades, and represent each of the main phases with which the composer has been associated.

Composed as music for the film The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, the Three Pieces in Old Style (1963) are instances of a stylistic pastiche that must have seemed the more disconcerting given Penderecki’s standing at that time as a leading younger composer of the European avant-garde, though their recourse to procedures of that era anticipates the stylistic plurality such as the composer was to embrace a decade hence. The opening Aria represents a decidedly late-Romantic take on its Baroque archetype. There follow two Menuettos: the first is a lively number of robust rhythms and engaging humour, while the second is more obviously related to the original dance measure and is redolent of the galante style from the late Baroque era.

The two movements of the Serenade (1996–7) were conceived as well as first performed separately, the first complete account given by Rudolf Baumgartner with the Lucerne Festival Strings in Lucerne on 31st August 1997. It begins with a stern Passacaglia whose progress is informed by the echoing motif heard at the outset, and which reappears as the movement nears its emotional apex before dying away uncertainly. There follows a Larghetto whose soulful initial bars set the tone for this study in gravely undulating string textures, at length reaching a climax thrown into relief by an eloquent violin solo which returns to the opening introspection.

A transcription of the String Trio, Sinfonietta No. 1 (1992) was first heard in Warsaw on 17th February 1992 with Sinfonia Varsovia conducted by the composer. The piece falls into two very different movements which, between them, add up to an unlikely unity whose sum is nevertheless greater for its overt polarity. It begins with an Allegro molto whose aggressive opening chords are contrasted starkly with a lengthy and increasingly impassioned viola solo. Further alternation of these two ideas brings about a fugitive motion between groups of strings from which various soloists emerge in a subtle variation of texture, the mood at first calming then intensifying as the movement drives onward to a brief climax which is followed by an equivocal close. The ensuing Vivace is its complement in almost every respect—the trenchant initial activity opening out into brusque contrapuntal activity, followed by spectral pizzicato writing that presages a final headlong surge.

Given its première by the Zurich Chamber Orchestra with its dedicatee Edmond de Stoutz in Zurich on 30th November 1973, the Intermezzo for 24 strings (1973) is among Penderecki’s final works written in the radical idiom that he had pioneered over the preceding fifteen years—its sound-world closely related to that of the First Symphony. The wavering initial gestures gradually merge into a kaleidoscopic interplay that exploits aspects of timbre and texture to the full. Near its mid-point the music takes on greater solidity before suddenly alighting on a string cluster of great density, soon thinning out to a unison chord which itself disperses into fragmentary gestures.

The Capriccio for oboe and eleven strings (1964) is the earliest piece featured on this disc. Given its première by Heinz Holliger, with the Lucerne Festival Strings and Rudolf Baumgartner, in Lucerne on 26th August 1965, it gives evidence of a lighter side to Penderecki’s thinking found in several instrumental works from the period. The initial gestures centre on a single note obsessively repeated by oboe and strings alike, with the latter having recourse to a wide range of playing techniques. A third of the way through this dialogue becomes more equable, oboe having a piquant cadenza that gradually draws strings back into the fray, but an underlying humour persists through more confrontational stages to a close which seems literally to vanish into thin air.

A transcription of the Clarinet Quartet [8.557052], Sinfonietta No. 2 (1994) received its first hearing in Bad Kissingen on 13th July 1994 from clarinettist Paul Meyer with Sinfonia Varsovia conducted by the composer. Among the most substantial of Penderecki’s later orchestral works, it unfolds over four highly contrasted movements. The opening Notturno begins with a plaintive clarinet solo that becomes even more expressive once the strings have entered, though the textures remain sparse right through to the austere final bars. The Scherzo that follows is set in motion with a pulsating rhythm that draws clarinet and strings into an animated though also sardonic dialogue, while the ensuing Serenade inhabits an unexpectedly neo-classical vein with the witty play that emerges on its underlying waltz rhythm. Much the most substantial section, the final Abschied opens in elegiac uncertainty before it unfolds as might the slow movement of a full-blown concerto: at one point a violin ascends to the top of its register, after which the clarinet continues with a mournful solo that sees the strings wind down to a point of near stasis—the two ‘solo’ instruments then uncertainly trading gestures over remote lower strings which presently bring about a calm yet ultimately unresolved conclusion.

Richard Whitehouse

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