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Robert Hugill
MusicWeb International, January 2008

"This is in many ways an admirable disc, further evidence of Naxos’s commitment to the music of Penderecki, played by Polish forces. It might be possible to think of slightly better recordings of these pieces. But it is good to have them recorded by Polish forces and at a price which means that the listener can experiment without much danger to the pocket. If Penderecki’s challenging music appeals to you, then do try this disc."

Andrew Fraser
Limelight, November 2007

Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki leads a double life. On one hand he is a radical modernist composer whose use of new sonorities in works such as Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima (1961) endeared him to the avant-garde, while on the other his devout Catholic faith inspired his Stabat Mater (1962), a work of such simplicity and direct expression that it dismayed his avant-garde supporters with its apparent conservatism. (Ironically, being a devout Catholic in the atheistic society that was 1960s Poland is probably his most radical act of all.) These recordings, from Antoni Wit and the Warsaw Philharmonic, contain music from both sides of the composer. The opening Te Deum was written in 1979/80 to celebrate the appointment [strictly, the election – Ed] of the first Polish Pope. Sung in both Latin and Polish, it uses four soloists, choir and orchestra and is a beautiful, simple and affecting work. The Hymne an den heiligen Daniel (for choir and orchestra) is a more compact, but still effective composition from 1997 and the Chaconne, a work for strings only, was composed in 2005 following the death of Pope John Paul II. Contrasting dramatically with these simple expressive works are the extraordinary sonorities of 1961’s Polymorphia, also for strings only, but this time seemingly using every imaginable sound possible from these instruments.

Dan Morgan
MusicWeb International, November 2007

I first encountered the Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki through his 1961 piece Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima. Some years later I discovered Die Teufel von Loudon in a splendid Philips recording which, as far as I’m aware, has never made it to CD. However, there is an Arthaus DVD of the Hamburg studio production under Marek Janowski, which may be worth investigating (Arthaus Musik DVD 101279).

The works on this disc range from the more avant-garde, experimental Polymorphia of 1961 through to the neo-Romantic Hymne an den Heiligen Daniel (1997) and two choral pieces inspired by Karol Wojtyla, otherwise known as Pope John Paul II. At the helm is Antoni Wit who, along with his Warsaw band, is a mainstay of the Naxos catalogue. In particular I enjoyed this team’s Má Vlast (Smetana) and, especially, their Mahler 8, both very fine performances indeed.

The first part of the Te Deum, written to celebrate Pope John Paul II’s anointment in 1978, strikes me as anything but celebratory. But then one has to remember the political turbulence in Poland at the time. (Penderecki’s Polish Requiem composed in the 1980s but only premiered in 1993 began as a response to the turmoil at home, specifically the brutal stand-off between the Gdansk shipyard workers and the Polish authorities.)

The work opens with menacing drum rolls and sombre strings. The liner notes describe the work as an example of the composer’s ‘monumental neo-Romanticism’, which is as good a description as any (though monumental might be closer to the mark). The choral writing may have an austere spikiness, but the solo lines sound rather more conventional. Again the mood is anything but uplifting; indeed, if I were to be uncharitable I’d suggest it’s a tad lugubrious at times. The soloists sing with plenty of east European vibrato, although I suppose one could argue it is a more authentically Polish vocal style appropriate to a work such as this.

The choir – placed quite far back – sing incisively enough but the big climax at 8:40 sounds rather messy and unfocused. There is some respite at the close, with the gentle shimmer of untuned percussion underpinning the muted voices, before the motoric martial opening to Part 2 (‘The army of martyrs praise Thee’). This is certainly Penderecki in monumental mode, with great blocks of choral and instrumental sound punctuated by the soloists’ supplications. The choir respond with gusto in this movement, Penderecki opting for pizzicato strings to carry the solo vocal lines. The frigid finale is about as near to repose as we are likely to get in this music.

The third movement opens with a muted choral invocation to the ‘God of Poland …wrapped in great light, power and glory’, interspersed with some limpid singing from the soprano. The first climax is brutal in its dissonance, the battery of timps powerfully reasserting the martial rhythms of Part 2. As much as I wanted to be drawn into this music I felt a curious detachment throughout. Occasionally there are instrumental touches (such as the soft pulse of gongs at 5:20 onwards) that draw the ear but rarely engage the heart.

The Hymne an den Heiligen Daniel comes as a ray of sunshine after the unremitting gloom of the Te Deum. Sung in Church Slavonic – as in the Grechaninov Passion Week I reviewed recently – this hymn seems to have more in common with Eastern Orthodoxy. The first section (‘Slava’) certainly has a strong liturgical flavour, with its gently undulating choral writing. The gong strokes add to the atmosphere of mystery, with ecstatic brass and choral interjections. There is also a strong, flexible rhythm here, the old Slavonic cadences adding a genuine sense of fervour to the music. This is much more vigorous, more harmonically interesting and varied than the Te Deum (there is some febrile writing for the trumpets, too). And what a heaven-storming finale. Definitely the composer at his most approachable.

The experimental Penderecki is represented here by Polymorphia. As with Threnody (written in the same year) this piece is for strings only, beginning with a long, hypnotic figure for cellos and basses. There is a process of harmonic metamorphosis as Penderecki adds more ‘layers’ to this foundation. The results are pulsating glissandi that grow in weight, volume and complexity. The similarities to Threnody are very striking indeed, Wit bringing out all the jagged instrumental and rhythmic elements of the music.

Ideally a more transparent acoustic would have helped here – and in the other works, come to that – but one can’t deny the extraordinary frisson of those percussive tuttis, which have all the savage abandon of a pagan rite. Penderecki also manages to achieve long orchestral lines that even sound like unison voices; technically very adroit, but very much a piece of its time. Needless to say the orchestra respond with enormous energy and precision and the engineers must have had a field day trying to capture the work’s sheer weight and complexity.

The Chaconne is not taken from the Polish Requiem (as one might assume from the track listing) but is a lament for Pope John Paul II, who died in 2005. Subtitled ‘in memoria Giovanni Paolo II’, this is bold and stark in its appeal. It also has a fleeting intimacy in places (a glimpse, perhaps, of the gentler man within) but the biting upper strings and grinding basses eloquently remind us of public grief as well.

When the first Naxos CD appeared twenty years ago few thought the company would become such a fertile source of interesting repertoire. Granted, some releases are going to be more successful than others, but in this case Naxos have put together a well-chosen programme that offers a good introduction to Penderecki’s work, past and present. The playing is committed and the sound is adequate, but I would particularly like to hear Hymne an den Heiligen Daniel recorded in a more grateful acoustic. This disc may not appeal to everyone but I’d buy it for this work alone.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, September 2007

Having been the darling of the avant garde movement, the Polish composer, Krzysztof Penderecki, shocked the musical world in the mid-1960’s when he turned his back on radicalization and restored a link with traditional progression. He is now working in a remarkably wide range of tonal colours and strong rhythms, while at the same time entering a mystical world. This rebirth is nowhere more explicit than in the Te Deum, completed in 1980 and inspired by the anointing of Karol Wojtyla as the first Polish Pope. Any thoughts that this would be a celebratory score are immediately dashed by the ominous opening. What message is this sombre work carrying? It is not one of hope for the future, the drama and sense of angst taking over with big dissonant climatic moments. There is anguish, tolling of bells, protestations and a feeling of utter sadness. Indeed without knowing the background of its inspiration one would assume it is a work following a major conflict, its message seemingly aligned to Britten’s War Requiem. That it makes a tremendous impression on the listener is without doubt, particularly in this powerful Warsaw performance, conducted with a firm grasp of the score by Antoni Wit. It is set for four soloists, choir and large orchestra, and though not specified, it falls into three long sections, the whole piece coming to a disconcertingly quiet and sunless ending. We return to polyphony of times past as the basis for the Hymne an den heiligen Daniel, a score seeking salvation through the offices of Prince Daniel’s Holy Relics. At times the music moves to powerful prayers that beg our redemption, before ending with the chorus pleading for ‘peace and grace’. We jump back to his experimental days for Polymorphia, a work of substantial duration where the slow turgid lower tones underpin the composer’s much loved violin glissandos. It seems a strange programme choice as we bounce back to the 2005 Chaconne that Penderecki has added to his Polish Requiem in memory of Pope John Paul II. The disc as a whole shows a superb orchestra in peak form, excellently recorded, this ongoing Penderecki cycle one of the great landmarks of 20th century music.

Fanfare, March 2006

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