RSS feed RSS Twitter Twitter Facebook Facebook 15 Questions 15 Questions

CD Feature/ Krzysztof Penderecki: "Symphony No. 8"

img  Tobias
Krzysztof Penderecki is a controversial figure of the new music landscape. Envy and disappointment about his artistic development, as well as personal feuds with leading figures of contemporary composition make his position slightly uneasy, despite the fact that he may actually be one of the few names of the scene a bloke on the street might faintly recognise. The world premiere recording of his 8th Symphony uncovers some of the reasons behind the debate surrounding his persona by contrasting it with two of his older pieces.

Having said all that, it goes almost without saying that Penderecki can not be blamed for his (admittedly tremendous) success. While sales of David Zinman’s rendition of his “Symphony No. 3” have long passed the one-million bar worldwide (a number anything but guaranteed for the next Michael Jackson album), this obscure triumph of the Avantgarde was a complete one-off and can never be fully explained by any kind of logical rationale. A slowed-down version of minimalism, that work was so entirely out of time, place, tune and sync with anything else that might have been happening at its borders, that even its creator would not have dreamt of such economic blessings – let alone have planned it in any kind of way.

It is therefore almost trivial to claim that one needs to look at Penderecki’s ouevre from a bird’s eye perspective. Hindsight is not just a retrospective benefit with regards to his work, but the only possible analytical method capable of making any sense of a repertoire which includes both stern memorials for revolutionary martyrs and orchestral works based on christmas carols.

Critical voices and curious newbies will therefore want to listen to this Naxos release in chronological order and therefore from the end to the beginning. Starting with 1958’s “Aus den Psalmen Davids”, continuing via “Dies Irae” from 1967 it finishes with the 36-minute “Symphony No. 8”, a cycle of twelve songs, faintly comparable to Mahler’s “Lied von der Erde” in approach, based on poems from the period of German romanticism and taking “decay” as its principal theme.

While the earliest work included here still toys with various styles and atomises itself into short episodes which seem to be occupied with the exemplification of a single idea, “Dies Irae” is a culmination of Penderecki’s cluster-phase, a choral composition in which voices are presented in almost dehumanised form, bleeding into swelling and abruptly truncated sheets of timbre and harmony.

The “Symphony No. 8”, meanwhile, calls for the full force of the Warsaw National Philharmonic Choir, the Warsaw National Philharmonic Orchestra, as well as a string of soloists (including Baritone Wojtek Drabowicz, who died in a car accident last year). Its arrangement is marked by an intimate sound regularly pierced by fierce stabs of orchestral tutti, the reoccurance and motive-like character of semitones and an economical use of dissonance.

There is an implicit tension running through it thanks to a formally strict build-up, which seems to be aimed straight at a big finale: Big ensemble passages frame the work, extracts from Rilke’s “Ende des Herbstes” structure it into acts at first dominated by male and later by female voices – which arrive at a synergetic unison in the end.

Taken on their own, these are painfully plaintive songs from the grey zone between night and day and between sanity and madness. In the context of the symphony, though, they are awarded functional character. Gradually, the tone gets more severe and fatalistic, the moods more claustrophobic and premonitious. Processes of nature are metaphors for life and death in the lyrics, which move from faint traces of hopefulness in sentences like “The lilac still blossoms” to the inescapability of a world which drowns its inhabitants with an excess of colours, food and drink.

Where others would end in indecision or leave the open ends of this train of thought unresolved, Penderecki searches for a chance within the dilemma. If all physical need is saturated, the mind can come to the fore, leaving the “night of the body” by “swimming in beams”. He eschews the expected crescendo at the very end, replacing it with an upwardly curved glissando  – a discreetly optimistic twist to an otherwhise pensive piece.

Compared to “Dies Irae”, this concreteness and simplicity may seem like a Holywood-like Happy end. On the other hand, Penderecki has arrived at a style of transcendental story telling, which can only be understood if one precisely does away with this kind of post-categorisation. Without the shadow of a doubt, he has become more accessible, more mild and less demonstrative in his gestures. But the dark fascination of his work has possibly even grown, as textures are still filled with allegorical evocations and hints at the past. The cinematic qualities of his 8th symphony will of course not mend the differences between his critics and admirers. If anything, they are bound to increase even more.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Naxos Records

Related articles

Concert Report: Quarrel Quartet
Live at Schloss vor Husum, ...
15 Questions to Ewa Kupiec
It is usually not much ...
15 Questions to Michael Blake
To Michael Blake, composing is ...
CD Feature/ William Stalnaker: "About Lear and Others"
Rhythmic elation: William Stalnaker is ...
CD Feature/ Chloe Hanslip: "Benjamin Godard - Violin Concertos"
Nurturing symphonic ambitions: As much ...
CD Feature/ Morton Feldman: "String Quartet"
Endless variations and challenging musical ...
CD Feature/ Koscak Yamada: "Nagauta Symphony/InnoMeiji/Maria Magdalena"
Follows a reverse chronology: A ...
CD Feature/ Chloe Hanslip: "John Adams - Violin Concerto"
An “English girl in New ...
CD Feature/ Peter Maxwell Davies: "Naxos Quartets Nos. 7 and 8"
Stone-made allegories and a musical ...
15 Questions to the Corigliano Quartet
"John Corigliano: Music for String ...
CD Feature/ Alla Pavlova: "Symphony No. 5"
A circle dance of modulations ...
CD Feature/ J. Corigliano/J. Friedman: "String Quartet/String Quartet No.2"
A handshake between generations: The ...

Partner sites