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See latest reviews of other albums..., January 2009

Antoni Wit’s ongoing cycle of Penderecki orchestral works is yet another of those truly outstanding Naxos projects that’s unlikely to get the attention it deserves. The music isn’t easy, or popular, but Wit is a marvellous conductor in this repertoire, and his unfailingly intense and idiomatic performances look to become the standard by which all others will be judged. This new release just may be the best so far.

The Seven Gates, though largely unthreatening in its use of consonant harmony, is a very difficult work to perform. The choral and solo writing is tiring (if often incredibly moving and impressive), and the presence of a lengthy narration may bother some listeners. In my opinion Penderecki is one of the very few composers who can pull it off, and here he does so magnificently.

Perhaps the most wonderful thing about this recording is its ability to be serious (isn’t Penderecki always?) without sounding labored, or relentlessly heavy. Partly it’s a function of really exceptional choral singing and a uniformly high-quality bunch of soloists. The rest, though, is Wit’s ideal pacing and that feeling for timbre and texture that made his Messiaen Turangalila-Symphonie so memorable. In short, even if you don’t normally warm to Penderecki, you probably will find this disc surprisingly appealing. The sung texts are available on Naxos’ website, but it’s just as much fun to simply wallow in the evocative sonorities that Penderecki gets from his very large vocal and instrumental forces. Excellent engineering makes the music both rage and shimmer as it must. A splendid release in every way!

Penguin Guide, January 2009

Penderecki decided only after the first performance of this magnificent work, designed to celebrate the third millennium of the city of Jerusalem, to include it among his symphonies. It is a massive cantata in seven movements, setting Psalms in Hebrew, with Penderecki handling colossal forces with thrilling mastery. He was right to underline the symphonic element in this way, as the sequence of movements brings together the choral and symphonic elements in his work very effectively. The figure ‘7’ is used obsessively, not least in seven-note themes. The very opening is shattering in its impact, setting Psalm 48, while the longest of the seven movements is the fifth, Lauda Zion, setting Psalm 147, a Scherzo introduced by timpani ad percussion. With striking and immediately attractive themes, it brings a colossal climax as powerful as anything Penderecki has written. At its peak it is interrupted by the sixth movement, setting a declamation of words from the Book of Ezekiel, representing the world of God, reinforced by a distinctive bass trumpet solo. The seventh movement then rounds the work off with a triumphant setting of Psalm 48. Performances under Antoni Wit are superb, strong and intense, with an excellent chorus and team of soloists.

Steven Ritter
Audiophile Audition, February 2007

Bechara El-Khoury is a Lebanese composer who was born in Beirut in 1957. Having lived through many experiences with that country it should come as no surprise that a large amount of his music is connected with themes such as the atrocities of the war in his homeland, peace, and the quest for brotherhood among disparate peoples. The two principal works on this recording express this.

The Rivers Engulfed is about the short time that man has when passing through life. The five movements, ‘Fog’, ‘Song of Silence’, ‘Alert’, ‘Struggle’, and ‘Song of the Rivers’ explore the various moral, physical, and spiritual endeavors that man must overcome and achieve in order to successfully pass through life in a meaningful manner. This is a nicely done tone poem that works musically even without the program notes.

New York, Tears and Hope (2001–2005) is a threnody dedicated to the victims of 9/11, to those who found themselves caught up in an extraordinary moment of human degradations and chaos, thru no fault of their own. The work is a powerful, static piece of music that allows a more meditative reflection on the events of that day, as opposed to trying to preach something in a more vociferously musical manner. It leads through shock and despair to the triumph of the human spirit and the necessity for remaining strong in the face of mindless oppression.

The Sextet for violins was written with the idea that at least six players needed to take part, but that multiples of each part were preferred. In this recording we have a total of 24 players—the violin section of the London Symphony. The piece is short, and was commissioned as part of the master classes of violinist Shlomo Mintz.

Waves is another tone poem, this time for piano alone, describing in vivid musical detail the rollicking and momentous motion of the waves of the ocean, waves that, according to the composer, can be “the origin of several tragedies, wiping out cities and peoples, with the violence of a flash of lightning”. The piece is chewy and affecting, parts of it even reminding me of George Crumb in the massive piano chords.

Forgotten Fragments is also for piano alone, and this time the program is not so definitive; indeed, it deals with themes and thematic cells in a way that will bring to mind some of Schoenberg’s piano music, albeit not as clearly structured. This is an interesting album, largely tonal, and certainly accessible. For the Naxos price it is an easy way to get to know this composer, and the performances and engineering are all unfailingly of high quality.

Arnold Whittall
Gramophone, November 2006

Penderecki the penitential’s Jerusalem is pretty heavy going

Penderecki’s Seventh Symphony (1997) was the result of a prestigious commission to mark the third millennium of the city of Jerusalem. Frivolity was clearly not required, though I wonder whether the state of Israel really welcomed something as overwhelmingly penitential as the Gates of Jerusalem. Exuberance and euphoria are in very short supply, and the texts, selected from the Psalms and the Old Testament prophets, suggest a profound, helpless awe in face of the Almighty. Even the symphony’s sudden, would-be affirmative final cadence sounds like nothing more than a half-hearted attempt to snatch joy from the jaws of sorrow.

The way the first section’s boldly sculpted opening rapidly loses momentum represents the composer’s familiar preference for basic 19th-century harmonic and melodic archetypes to any more forthright or austere 20th-century modes of expression. In places the music sounds rather like Verdi’s “Dies irae” at half speed, with drooping chromatics and plodding rhythms; and although the symphony isn’t entirely devoid of imaginative textural touches—the use of the bass trumpet to suggest the voice of God, and the presence of a narrator a good deal more charismatic than the solo singers are allowed to be by the nature of the vocal writing—there are all too many passages that suggest the dutiful padding which composers fall back on when a work lasting at least an hour has been called for.

After all this, I must emphasise that this performance is admirably focused on the task in hand, with the hard-working soprano soloists particularly impressive. The spacious recording has good presence and definition.

Dominy Clements
MusicWeb International, November 2006

Collectors who have been picking up the other symphonies in this ongoing Naxos series will know a little about what to expect on this new recording. Krzyzstof Penderecki created a major stir in the contemporary music world as far back as 1962 when, having stirred international interest with such avant-garde works as Anaklasis (1960) and the Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima (1961), he came up with his Stabat Mater—a work whose emotional directness and faith-based simplicity lead critics to accuse the composer of turning his back on musical progress. Penderecki is however a devout catholic, and the neo-Romantic, pluralistic idiom which he developed in the 1970s and 1980s served both his symphonic and his religious output well.

The Symphony No.7 “Seven Gates of Jerusalem” is, in the most simplistic terms, a choral symphony. Originally commissioned to celebrate the city of Jerusalem’s third millennium, the piece first appeared as an oratorio, being re-named as the seventh symphony on the work’s Polish premiere in March 1997, two months after the world premiere in Jerusalem. The number seven crops up at a number of levels in this work: seven movements, seven-note phrases in the building up of thematic content, and seven repetitions of notes at the same pitch.

The initial and pervading impression is of substantial orchestral forces, reinforced with extensive percussion and by exotic instruments such as the bass trumpet and the tubaphone. Lauda Jerusalem has some fascinating effects with tuned tubes like ‘Boomwhackers’ spread spatially to left and right. The dramatic choral and orchestral writing of this and other movements contrast strongly with the gentle but intensely intertwining polyphony of the third, a capella De Profundis movement. The orchestral writing has echoes of Shostakovich, and enthusiasts for his symphonies mixed with the drama of something like Orff’s ‘Carmina Burana’ will find a great deal to get their teeth stuck into here.

The recording is superb, and Antoni Wit’s direction leads to some hair-raising moments. The transition between Lauda Jerusalem and , with some convincingly baleful Hebrew narration from Boris Carmeli is particularly moving. The Warsaw chorus and orchestra sing and play out of their skins, and this whole production is highly impressive—far too vast and spectacular for a budget price issue. As far as I can see this is the only CD recording available at the moment, although there is an Arthaus DVD of a performance conducted by the composer. This piece is very much a statement for our times, being simultaneously accessible and uncompromisingly intense and forceful in both message and manner. There’s nothing to be afraid of by trying this new disc—just a disturbingly moving and dramatic apocalypse in your front room.

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