Penderecki Works: Polymorphia, Analasis, Fluorescenes, Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima, Intermezzo, Kosmogonia (Antoni Wit) Naxos NAC-LP002-03
Written in 1959/60, Anaklasis, for 42 string instruments and percussion was the work that established Penderecki’s radical credentials with its extensive use of sounds that emphasise sonorous effect as opposed to pitch-based harmonic and melodic argument. It was swiftly followed by 8’37’’, for 52 string instruments, renamed Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima after the composer heard it in performance. It remains one of his best-known pieces, its radical and energetically deployed effects – clusters, microtonal tuning, playing behind the bridge, slapping the instrument body – providing a visceral and disturbing listening experience that lives up to its revised title.
Polymorphia, for 48 string instruments, written in 1961, is less brazen than Threnody. The gradually expanding clustered opening is brilliantly paced and opens out into an extravagant section full of percussive extended string writing. The work culminates in a return to dense clusters that end in a C major triad, the composer claiming that this was a natural result of musical processes at work. In other contexts, such as the final chord of the St. Luke Passion (1966) or in Kosmogonia (see below) the effect works triumphantly well. Here, however, it is rather less convincing: the chord feeling more like a petulant challenge to musical tradition rather than a natural consequence of what precedes it. It rather spoils an otherwise fine work.
Fluorescences, written from 1961-2 is a more ambitious piece that includes brass, wind and a large range of percussion instruments, including güiros, gongs and a typewriter. The score was considered a departure, with Penderecki declaring that ‘All I’m interested in doing is liberating sound beyond all tradition.’ The range of felicitous sonorities easily maintains interest, even if the more subtle structure is harder to follow. The much later Intermezzo (1973), by contrast, and despite being considered to be part of this radical period, is much easier to grasp; whilst still making use of many extended techniques there is a much greater sense of melodic development and even of pitch-centeredness.
The only vocal work on offer is Kosmogonia (1970), written to mark the 25th anniversary of the United Nations. By this time the composer was well versed in deploying his radical effects, many of which will be familiar from the earlier works here presented. The piece feels more epic than its rather slender 18 minutes would suggest, the varied sonorities being moulded into a convincing and satisfying whole.
This two-disc set, convincingly performed by Antoni Wit and his Warsaw forces, provides an excellent introduction to Penderecki’s sonoristic style of the sixties and early seventies. It is also, perhaps, marks a good moment for us to reflect upon Naxos’s unrivalled work in support of contemporary music. Their Penderecki catalogue now contains his eight symphonies, his most important choral works such as the Polish Requiem and St. Luke Passion, various concertos and chamber music and the opera Die Teufe con Loudon. It is a commitment that Naxos extends to many other living composers, both well and less well known. For sheer breadth and depth, Naxos is the one record label contemporary music could not be without.
The rest of the month’s releases
As if to reinforce the point, there are a number of other interesting releases on Naxos this month: Shin-ichi Fukada plays the complete guitar music of Toru Takemitsu in the first of an on-going series of Japanese guitar music; there is a disc of viola music and another of various chamber works by Frank Ezra Lévy; two Flute Concertos by Christos Hatzis; Cage Works for 2 Keyboards played by Xenia Pestova and Pascal Meyer; Desbrière’s Piano Concerto, Cinq Pieces Etranges and Huit Préludes Intérieurs; and Richard Danielpour’s Toward a Season of Peace oratorio.
There are two upcoming releases on NMC to look forward to: Violin Concerto, Concerto for Orchestra and Orion Over Farne by John Casken (released 20th April) and Gawain by Harrison Birtwistle (18th May). You can listen to extracts from these recordings now by following my links. On Nonesuch, John Adams’ City Noir and the debut recording of his Saxophone Concerto is now available for preorder; whilst composer Jacob Cooper’s debut Silver Threads, consisting of a six-song cycle performed by Mellissa Hughes, will be released on April 29th.
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