Classical Music Home

Welcome to Naxos Records

Keyword Search
 Classical Music Home > Naxos Album Reviews

Album Reviews

See latest reviews of other albums...

Dan Morgan
MusicWeb International, August 2009

The Naxos Penderecki series has produced some fine discs, among them a thrilling Te Deum and Hymne an den heiligen Daniel (8.557980). As before Antoni Wit and his Warsaw orchestra are the driving force. I won’t pretend Utrenja is an easy listen—it isn’t—and although it’s not uniformly inspired it is one of the composer’s key works. As such, it really does deserve a wider audience.

The 1960s proved decisive for Penderecki, who moved out of the shadow of Boulez and Webern and into a more individual sound-world. His big break came with the St Luke Passion (1963–1966) [8.557149], the first of a religious triptych that includes the two-part Utrenja, written four years later. The latter, focusing on the Orthodox liturgy for Holy Saturday, is an astonishing mix of musical styles, beginning with a somewhat traditional a cappella chorus. Even here there is an edge to the music that points towards the extreme choral and instrumental writing that follows. Only occasionally does the composer revert to a simple, Orthodox choral style, these passages appearing like shafts of light in the gloom.

The brooding Songs of Praise shatters any sense of calm with sudden orchestral spikes and glissandi. Add to that fearsomely difficult passages for the soloists—sample those strange upward slides, for instance—and you have the measure of this piece. Indeed, Utrenja is much closer to the uncompromising sound-world of Magnificat (1973–1974) than it is to the later Te Deum (1978), especially in its stratospheric choral writing. As ever, the Warsaw choir are incisive, their interjections and cries emphasised by a rather strident recording. That said, there is weight when it’s required, as in Canon of the Holy Saturday, Song 9, with its grinding brass and louring timps.

The male soloists sing fervently throughout, although that tell-tale Slavonic wobble is never far away. By way of contrast there is some gloriously dark, ‘olden-style’, choral singing in Irmologion (Stichira). That Penderecki trademark, the long glissando, is also used very effectively here, drawing the music upwards, as if on a swirl of incense. It’s an extraordinary effect, which culminates in an awe-inspiring choral and instrumental epiphany. Not an easy listen by any means, but a spine-tingling one nonetheless.

If anything, Part II—premiered a year later—is even more challenging. The repetitive percussion and declamatory choral writing of Gospel may seem a little plainer than anything we’ve heard thus far, although there is an unmistakable air of ecstasy in the next movement, Stichira. Again, Penderecki is thoroughly unconventional, tapping into the inherent mysticism of this Orthodox celebration and releasing a flood of raw energy in the process. Traditionalists will baulk at such liberties, but one could argue that this is the Paschal ceremony stripped—like the altar—to its bare essentials. This gaunt music sounds all the more radical when juxtaposed with snatches of radiant choral singing.

Stichira ends with a Threnody-like passage for chorus and orchestra, marred by some very unsteady contributions from the male soloists. Those upward figures surely need a smoothness of line, a security of tone, that’s entirely lacking at this point. There’s nothing like exposed vocal writing to expose vocal imperfections, and this is no exception. Indeed, I’m not convinced Part II is as consistently inspired—or as well prepared and executed—as Part I, and the squally singing of tenor Piotr Kusiewicz doesn’t help. Thankfully, the mezzo, Agnieszka Rehlis, is much steadier.

Wit’s overworked percussionists have a field day in Psalm with Troparion, although I did wonder whether Penderecki’s impossible vocal and instrumental demands had finally pushed the performers beyond their capabilities. Bells and voices add to the mêlée, Wit all but overwhelmed by this panoply of sound. I suspect some listeners may find this movement a challenge too far. Stay with it, though, even if you have to grit your teeth at the insanely wide vibrato on display in Passover Canon, Songs 1 and 3, because there is some respite in Kontakion and Ikos, where we return to the ancient choral bedrock that underpins this holiest of celebrations.

The final movement, Passover Canon, fragments, begins with a blaze—some might say shriek—of ecstasy that will have you leaping for the volume control. Arresting at first, this device now sounds a little overworked, as if the composer is stretching his material further than it will comfortably go. That said, Utrenja modulates to something a little more serene, not to say sombre, before fading to a profound silence. I was left feeling Utrenja doesn’t capture the ear or engage the mind as successfully as the Te Deum, whose more accessible style—and scale—will surely appeal to a much wider audience.

Forty years on, Utrenja is still a challenge, even for those well disposed to this composer’s music.

David Hurwitz, July 2009

Antoni Wit and his Polish forces are incomparable in this repertoire, and this performance of Utrenja goes straight to the top of the heap. Scored for chorus, soloists, strings, and percussion, and heavily influenced by the (then) avant-garde sounds of electronic instruments, the piece stands with the composer’s St Luke Passion, Polish Requiem, and The Devils of Loudon as an example of his early, radical phase. But that doesn’t mean that it’s all that difficult by today’s standards. In fact, the music is both approachable and, more to the point, entirely apt.

The text of Utrenja comes from the Easter week liturgy and falls into two parts, dealing first with the death of Christ, and second, with his resurrection. Penderecki’s adventurous exploitation of texture and sonority suits the brooding darkness of the first part and the transcendental climaxes of the second extremely well. Wit has at his disposal an excellent team of fearless soloists, and most importantly a superb choir that must be familiar with the idiom of works that have to be seen today as standing squarely in the mainstream of 20th-century Polish music.

Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra (no less) made an impressive recording of Utrenja for RCA, and that disc has been reissued in the Japanese Ormandy Edition, now available on-demand from Good as that was, it cannot compare in terms of chorus work to this newcomer, and Naxos’ sonics, as always from this source, are supremely natural and well-balanced, particularly when compared to what RCA was doing back in the 1970s. If you’ve been collecting this series then this new release will be self-recommending. Since the length of Utrenja is by no means unduly taxing, this disc makes an excellent place for the curious to start as well.

Anthony Burton
BBC Music Magazine, July 2009

Something of a sleeping giant in Penderecki’s output, Utrenja is a sequel in more ways than one to the better-known St Luke Passion. It was written soon after it, in 1970 and ‘71, and it reflects on the events following the Crucifixion: its two parts are called respectively ‘The Entombment of Christ’ and ‘The Resurrection of Christ’. But the texts here are mostly in Old Slavonic, culled by Penderecki from Orthodox Easter liturgies—an early sign of his long engagement with Russian church tradition.

As for the music, it inhabits the dramatic sound-world of early Penderecki: sustained clusters, slides, free-time ‘crowd scenes’, extremes of register and dynamics, sudden percussion outbursts—shock tactics, in short, among which not the least shocking is the sudden consonance of Orthodox-style choral chanting. In the hands of Antoni Wit’s expert Warsaw forces and a fine solo line-up, it all makes a powerful effect, sombre in its Easter Saturday lamentation and wildly joyful in its Easter Day celebration.

Vivien Schweitzer
The New York Times, May 2009

The Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki has often meshed avant-garde and traditional elements, reflecting the multiple aesthetics he has explored during his long career. His “Utrenja,” inspired by the Eastern Orthodox Christian liturgy for Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday, alternates passages of serene sacred music with his trademark startling harmonic clusters.

Antoni Wit presents the work in a Naxos recording that vividly illuminates the contrast between Mr. Penderecki’s emotionally direct a cappella vocal writing and orchestral effects that mimic electronic music. The excellent soloists are Iwona Hossa, soprano; Agnieszka Rehlis, mezzo-soprano; Piotr Kusiewicz, tenor; and Piotr Nowacki, bass.

West German Radio commissioned “Utrenja,” whose two parts—“The Entombment of Christ” and “The Resurrection of Christ”—were given separate premieres in Germany, in 1970 and 1971. They form a triptych with Mr Penderecki’s “St Luke Passion” of 1966 [8.557386–87] “Utrenja,” using an Old Slavonic liturgical text, opens with sepulchral intonation by the basses. The rest of the choir joins to create harmonically ambiguous waves of sound. A solo soprano eventually rises above the exuberant orchestral frenzy of the second movement, “Songs of Praise,” leading to a passage of devout music and a swarming vocal and orchestral melee that concludes with a subdued murmur. The vocal cacophony of “Irmos,” the third movement, alternates with somber chants by the basses. Other sections are similarly eclectic.

The mostly dark textures of Part 1 give way to brighter sounds in Part 2, with a percussive outburst opening “The Gospel,” the first section. The ensuing movement is notable for its uplifting choral passages and soaring vocal writing. “Utrenja” finishes with choral whisperings that hover above a shimmering orchestral fabric.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, March 2009

Completed in 1971, Utrenja forms the second and third parts designed to follow the ground-breaking St. Luke Passion, and relates to the Entombment and Resurrection of Christ. It is a score that comes at the threshold of his transition from a devout progressive modernist that was revered by the avant-garde, to a composer who began to find new roots in tonality. Utrenja offers traditionalists an entry point when it utilises Orthodox chant and passages where there is a religious sense of mystery. The two parts can stand alone and are performed as such, but they do make a natural pairing, the forces used being large and ambitious. It calls for a chorus of the utmost virtuosity, and among the five soloists is a deep bass. Though the score passes through moments of calm, it is mainly a densely scored and high-impact work, full of dramatic energy with wave after wave of declamatory singing, and the extensive use of percussion to heighten the force of its religious message. It must be an extraordinarily difficult work to prepare, but the present disc would have you think it is part of the performer’s standard repertoire. Notable among the singers is the tenor, Piotr Kusiewicz, who throws himself with unrestrained vigor into the task of being heard against the orchestral backdrop, though I suppose it will be the Russian, Gennady Bezzubenkov, whose deep bass voice will attract your attention. As in his previous Penderecki recordings, Antoni Wit, proves the ideal champion, obtaining a level of commitment from his massed forces that goes way beyond the call of duty. Somehow the engineers have captured this enormous dynamic and have sorted out the textures so that we can enjoy considerable detail. My one reservation is an absence of a printed text in the accompanying booklet.

Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group