Thursday, April 29, 2010

Penderecki Conducts Penderecki

I like these university classical concerts that you'd never hear anywhere else. Tonight's was the Philharmonia, conducted by a visiting Krzysztof Penderecki in four of his own works. Penderecki is in his late 70s, rotund, with a trim white beard and a distinguished air about the podium. Largely on account of his composition style, his conducting tended towards broad strokes: cues, indications, shaping ideas in the air, beating time. The Philharmonia was definitely "on" tonight, with the solo woodwinds sounding especially robust.

They started with the classic Penderecki sound, via the famous Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima of 1960 and then the wackier Capriccio for violin and orchestra of 1967. I wonder if the Threnody is one of those pieces destined to sound better in recording, where the timbres are uncannier more urgent and the textural changes are more sudden. Still it's a wild piece to watch the strings saw into live. The Capriccio is a strong piece -- not exactly humorous, but animated with a perverse and very noisy spirit, and somehow humane throughout. There are the balance problems you'd expect between a solo violin and a massive orchestra, not only acoustically but existentially: during interludes I kept forgetting there was even a soloist standing by. (She was an unpretentiously dressed Syoko Aki, by the way, university faculty, and she brought off that solo part rigorously and well.)

Skip ahead to 2008 and a horn concerto unfortunately subtitled "Winterreise," with William Purvis soloing. Penderecki, in the intervening decades, has abandoned the avant-garde for a serious-toned romanticism. The horn concerto has a lighter tone than any later-stage Penderecki I've listened to, but it's not a very good piece. First and foremost, the horn doesn't have anything particularly memorable to play. The orchestra's music sounds surprisingly cinematic, like filler in a lesser John Williams soundtrack, only with no tunes and a less indulgent orchestration. So despite some bright spots it was a weird disappointment of a piece.

The second half of the program was held in the imposing presence of Penderecki's Fourth Symphony, from 1989. Subtitled "Adagio," the symphony is cast in a continuous half-hour movement, predominantly in a tragic, prophetic tone. It can be oppressive, but it does command attention. The main theme, endlessly reworked, is a sinking fanfare gesture, introduced in searing brass with antiphonal trumpets. There's a lot in common with the sterner parts of symphonic Shostakovich -- tremolo strings, glumly meandering wind solos --- although Penderecki doesn't go in for anything emotive. In the second half of the symphony there's a long contrasting section with churning fugal activity in the strings, which dissipates the dour atmosphere for a while. The symphony ends more or less in the same place it began. I wouldn't call it an enjoyable listen, but it's compelling.

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CORRECTION [5/1/10, 8 AM]: I listened to the first few minutes of the Fourth Symphony on the Naxos listening library yesterday, since I had a nagging sense I'd misremembered the opening. True! The sinking fanfare gesture is actually introduced in threatening low strings, with the searing brass holding dissonant chords behind it. Regrets for the error.


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