Classical Music Home

Welcome to Naxos Records

Keyword Search
 Classical Music Home > Naxos Album Reviews

Album Reviews

See latest reviews of other albums...

Porter Anderson, January 2006

In this recording from Naxos -- which leads other labels this year with 15 classical Grammy nominations -- Penderecki's massive orchestrations and choral gymnastics are led by Antoni Wit. The Warsaw National Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra members sound as if they'd waited all their lives to perform this frightening, devastating music. In fact, one of the most visceral connections you can make with the nightmares of Europe's last century is to hear this music. In it, you feel -- as if you could touch it -- the real darkness of the worst of communism and Nazism. These are the sounds of hearts suffering the Kafka-chill of police-state oppression. Take the "Dies Irae," generally a hymn or chant for the dead. As the third movement in "A Polish Requiem," it's nobody's Gregorian hand-wringer. Penderecki's strings slash and claw at the air as the tenors, joined by the sopranos, bellow out a fearsome warning of "that judge whose searching light / Brings thought and word and deed to light." Those cliff-face glissandi, or cascading harmonies, are a Penderecki trademark. The "Mors stupebit" sequence opens with alto Jadwiga Rappé's despairing "Death is struck and nature quaking." It gives way to bells of alarm and stabbing military percussion under the hair-raising mayday of the choir's impassioned "Nothing unavenged remaineth." This is an Armageddon. Penderecki's work isn't always liturgical, although much of his choral work is, including "The Passion of St. Luke" and "Utrenja: The Entombment of Christ." In his "Requiem," by the time he reaches the communion segment, "Lux aeterna," he's working in a range of nerve-scraping strings deployed by Gyorgy Ligeti, whose own "Lux aeterna" is heard in the soundtrack of Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey." "I am seized with fear and trembling," the choir insists in a harrowing "Libera me, Domine" that starts in shadowy sotto voce and quickly vaults into soprano Izabella Klosinska's near-screams of panicked supplication. This two-CD set is fronted by the stained glass wonder of the 1940 "Faces" of artist Pavel Nikolaevich Filonov. Look carefully and the Klee-like mosaic resolves into dark eyes, a blank stare and a demonic-alien visage in a hieroglyphic jungle. And in the chiming, crowded crescendos of the final "Free the souls," the man from Debica no longer is beseeching any deity: His choir is simply demanding liberation from his homeland's 20th-century agonies.

Hubert Culot
MusicWeb International, March 2005

"In the early 1960s, when he was barely thirty, Penderecki burst onto the musical scene with a handful of startlingly novel works that had a considerable impact. His powerfully impressive Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima (1961), an earth-shaking study in unusual string sonorities, was encored at its first performance at the request of the reputedly conservative audience of the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. This says much for the work’s power to move, for all its technical novelty and complexity. Penderecki’s groundbreaking period culminated in the St Luke Passion (1964). This remains one of his most popular works to this day. However, the attentive listener must have noted that some eclecticism was already making its way into the music and in that of his first opera, The Devils of Loudun. In the next decade, he went on writing large-scale works such as Utrenja, Kosmogonia or Dies Irae in much the same vein. Then, he took a stylistic U-turn that still puzzles some of his staunchest supporters. This happened with the Brucknerian Second Symphony, the so-called Christmas Symphony completed in 1980. I am still unable to say whether this drastic stylistic re-orientation was the result of Penderecki’s will to make his music more accessible or of a deliberate money-making marketing process. This does not mean that all his later works up to the present day are worthless. As far as I am concerned, Penderecki’s sincerity is not in doubt; but I have the impression that he may now be writing down to his intended audience, and quite prolifically too. This is sometimes at the expense of more profound music-making. The works of Lutoslawski strongly demonstrated – and still do – that progressive and imaginative music could also be beautiful and accessible.

Sorry for this rather long digression, and now back to A Polish Requiem. This work had a long and complicated genesis. It was eventually assembled from works written on various occasions between 1980 and 1984. It all started with the Lacrimosa written in 1980 for Lech Walesa and the trade union Solidarity in memory of workers who died during confrontations with the authorities previously. Then came the Agnus Dei written in 1981 as a memorial tribute to Cardinal Wyszynski. The Recordare was composed to mark the beatification of Father Maximilian Kolbe. The Dies Irae followed in 1984 to mark the fortieth anniversary of the Warsaw uprising. Incidentally this should not be confused with the Dies Irae "in memory of the victims of Auschwitz" of 1967. The work, as it then stood, was first performed by Rostropovich in 1984. The Sanctus was added in 1993. But since Penderecki’s musical language did not undergo any further drastic stylistic changes, A Polish Requiem did not result in the patchwork piece that one might have expected. Stylistically speaking, it is remarkably coherent, even if no longer innovative. Penderecki knows how to handle large choral-orchestral forces, and how to develop long paragraphs and build up to well-calculated climaxes, while drawing on a large stylistic palette. A Polish Requiem may not be without "longueurs", but it nevertheless contains many powerful moments that cannot fail to impress. Again, I do not question Penderecki’s sincerity, even if I admit to being puzzled by his stylistic re-orientation of thirty years ago; an unresolved enigma to the present writer.

The present performance conducted by the ever-faithful Antoni Wit is as fine and assured as one may wish. He draws committed and convincing singing and playing from all concerned, to make the best of this substantial work. As such, and at Naxos’s bargain price, this release is strongly recommended."

Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group