About this Recording
8.572481 - PENDERECKI, K.: Canticum canticorum Salomonis / Kosmogonia (Warsaw Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra, Wit)

Krzysztof Penderecki (b. 1933)
Canticum Canticorum Salomonis • Kosmogonia Hymne an den heiligen Adalbert • Song of the Cherubim • Strophen


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 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 has 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 internalized the post-Romantic tradition and combined it with the technical hallmarks 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 such stylistic diversity as the expressionist Black Mask and the post-modern Ubu Rex. Compositions drawing on this new aesthetic included Symphonies Nos 3 [8.554491], 4 [8.554492] and 5 [8.554657], and the oratorios Seven Gates of Jerusalem [8.557766] and Credo [8.572032], all of these associated with both an acute expression and a refined array of technical means.

The present disc features five works that are drawn across almost four decades of Penderecki’s composing. Hymne an den heiligen Adalbert (1997) was first heard in Gdansk on 18 October 1997, with the composer conducting the Kraków Philharmonic Choir and Sinfonia Varsovia. As a companion piece to Hymne an den Heiligen Daniel [8.557980] this tribute to the eighth-century Bishop of Prague, who was martyred for efforts in converting the Baltic peoples, remains among the most striking of the composer’s latter-day choral works. Echoing brass chords set the tone for a setting in which the choir unfolds the text in a forthright and initially declamatory manner. The opening chords then open out into a spare yet evocative orchestral accompaniment, underpinned by bass drum strokes, that builds to a brief climax. Brass and woodwind then combine with the choir in a fervent peroration which, replete with the sound of bells, brings the piece to a powerful conclusion.

Song of the Cherubim (1986) was written for and first given by the Polish Chamber Choir with conductor Jan Łukaszewski. This also a setting of a text from the Orthodox liturgy, though here the music is far more austere and introspective. It begins with the intoning of altos, over which sopranos present the text before tenors take this on against syllabic chanting from basses. The music then unfolds in eloquent polyphony before assuming a greater rhythmic animation as the four choral voices juxtapose the text on the way to an intense climax. The final stages are again more inward as the upper voices proceed to fade out over sombre alleluias from basses.

Very different is Canticum Canticorum Salomonis (1973), which was first heard in Lisbon on 5 June 1973 with Werner Andreas Albert conducting the Hilversum Vocal Ensemble, Les Percussions de Strasbourg and the Gulbenkian Foundation Orchestra. Drawing its text from the Song of Songs, this is (hardly surprisingly) among the most sensuous and alluring of all Penderecki’s vocal pieces, and was considered something of a breakthrough in these respects. Formally, also, the piece unfolds with a spontaneity and imaginative variety in advance of his previous works, with any distinction between the sacred and the secular being subtly elided. Fragments of the text are initially sounded out by solo voices as the texture gradually becomes denser, fading out as the percussion enters in a welter of ringing sounds followed by vigorous pizzicato gestures. The voices now re-enter accompanied by brass and strings, the music unfolding in a sequence of often evocative choral gestures which are offset by outbursts from percussion and brass. The first climax emerges a third of the way through, in which elements of speech, declamation and whistling intricately combine, before a more reflective passage with the voices underpinned by ostinato patterns from percussion and strings. Woodwind and brass briefly enter before textures again thin out amid the resonating of percussion, the voices at length reappearing as the second main climax unfolds in dense chanting against an elaborate orchestral backdrop. From here the music gradually subsides in terms of voices and instruments, fading out to the delicate sound of percussion.

Composed at much the same time, Kosmogonia (1970) is a very different proposition. Commissioned to mark the 25th anniversary of the United Nations, it was first heard in New York on 24 October 1970 with soprano Joanna Neal, tenor Robert Nagy and bass Bernard Ladysz, with Rutgers University Choir and the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Zubin Mehta. Texts drawn from English, Italian and Latin sources help to provide an international perspective in a work whose impact and sense of occasion is out of all proportion to its modest duration, with the composer’s by then well-established techniques heard at their most virtuosic. Over static chords in cellos and double basses, upper strings then percussion emerge in a complex tapestry of sound with striking use of pizzicato and flexatone. Aggressive barrages from brass and percussion shatter the somnolent mood, then the chorus enters against dissonant woodwind chords. Spoken and hissing sounds are much in evidence, before a fervent outburst against strings and brass results in a sudden and highly dramatic major chord which subsides to the protestation of solo voices. These continue against interjections from brass as well as swirling gestures from organ, soon heading into a relatively extended bass solo to which the chorus responds with awestruck restraint. The opening textures are briefly restored as the music proceeds in sombre introspection to a vast climax in which the full vocal and orchestral forces are powerfully deployed. The soprano comes to the fore as the chorus ascends upward, leading to a final exhaling against immovable lower strings.

The disc closes with the work that first established Penderecki’s wider reputation. Strophen (1959) was first heard in Warsaw on 17 September 1959, with soprano Zofia Stachurska, speaker Franciszek Delekta and Andrzej Markowski directing members of the Silesian Philharmonic Orchestra. The settings in Greek, Hebrew and Persian confirm his wide-ranging literary interests, while the musical language indicates the absorption of influences from Boulez and Berio. Fragmentary gestures from flute, strings and percussion lead to the entry of speaker and soprano, who then unfold their texts against a spare yet intricate instrumental backdrop in a mood of detached emotion. A mood that holds good through to the final stages, when the contribution of flute grows more elaborate and dramatic interjections from the piano maintain an expressive tension through to the close.

Richard Whitehouse

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