PENDERECKI: Symphony No. 3 / Threnody (Antoni Wit/ Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra) (Naxos: 8.554491)
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Orchestral Works Vol.
Symphony No. 3;Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima for 52 Strings
Fluorescences fororchestra; De Natura Sonoris II for Orchestra
Penderecki was born in Dubica, a small town in Poland between Cracow andL'vov, and studied at Cracow Academy of Music and the Jagiellonian University.
He first showed himself to be a composer of enormous talent and boldimagination at the Warsaw Autumn Festivals of 1959 and 1960.
Penderecki quickly became part of the European avant-garde, achievingfame with his Threnody (1960) and a number of other pieces, in which heimparted a keen expressivity to his then 'sonorist' musical language. The StLuke Passion (1963-5) proved how successful this expressive sonorism couldbe in sacred music. He continued to be as inspired by timeless religious themesas by humanism. His cantatas, oratorios and dramatic compositions, performedall around the world, include Dies Irae (1967), Devils of Loudun (1969),Cosmogony (1970), Utrenya (1970-71), Canticum Canticorum (1973)and Magnificat (1974).
Looking back, Penderecki explained his great stylistic shift: 'Theavant-garde gave one an illusion of universalism. The musical world ofStockhausen, Nono, Boulez and Cage was for us, the young - hemmed in by theaesthetics of socialist realism, then the official canon in our country - aliberation. It opened a new reality, a new vision of art and of the world. Iwas quick to realise, however, that this novelty, this experimentation andformal speculation, is more destructive than constructive; I realised the Utopian quality of itsPromethean tone. I was saved from the avant-garde snare of formalism by areturn to tradition' (1993).
In the mid-1970s, this involvement with tradition became deeper, whenPenderecki entered into a dialogue with music he 'rediscovered' for himself. Heinternalised the post-Romantic tradition and combined it with the technicalachievements of his earlier music. Major works written in this new style soonfollowed: concertos for violin (1976), cello (1982) and viola (1983), SymphonyNo. 2 'Christmas' (1980), the opera Paradise Lost (1978), TeDeum (1980) and Polish Requiem (1980-84).
Further formal and stylistic investigations led Penderecki to foreswearpost-Romanticism, in favour of a new approach to the synthesis of the modernwith the traditional. This inspired operas of such stylistic diversity as theexpressionist Black Mask (1986) and the post-modern Ubu Rex (1991).
The composer advocated the need for 'unifying all that has been' to create asynthetic and universal language. 'What I have been doing,' he said in aninterview of 1997, 'has been to collect and to transform the experience of theentire century.' Compositions drawing on this new musical aesthetic included SymphoniesNos. 3 (1988-95), 4 (1989) and 5 (1992); concertos for flute (1993) and violin(No. 2, 1995) and, most importantly, the oratorios Seven Gates of Jerusalem (1996)and Credo (1998). This last synthesis is associated with a condensedexpression and a limited, purified array of technical means. 'Today, havinggone through the post-Romantic lesson, and having exhausted the potential ofpostmodern thinking, I see my artistic ideal in 'claritas' (1997).
The appearance of Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshimo was amajor event. The piece contained previously unheard means of powerfulexpression - explosive and liberating. By employing both known and unknownmodes of articulation, Penderecki made strings sound akin to percussion andwind. He drew on two contrasting compositional techniques: the extreme freedomof aleatoricism and the exacting one of serialism.
The series of sonorist events opens unexpectedly with a poignant cry inthe highest possible register. It ushers in an orgy of hissing, 'noise' andrasps, played in all possible ways. The music intensifies with series ofclusters, subdued at first, then glissando aggressive and rising. Aftera while, they recede before a sequence of pointillistically-scattered soundswhich, despite sounding improvised, are intricately woven into a 36-voicecanon. The streams of clusters return, rising to the full 52 voices - first ina cry, then dying down to pppp.
'I had written this piece,' the composer once reminisced, 'and I namedit, much as in Cage's manner, 8'37". But it existed only in myimagination, in a somewhat abstract way. When Ian Krenz recorded it and I couldlisten to an actual performance, I was struck with the emotional charge of thework. I thought it would be a waste to condemn it to such anonymity, to those'digits'. I searched for associations and, in the end, I decided to dedicate it to the Hiroshima victims' (1994).
Fluorescences for orchestra (1961) was written a year after Threnodyand almost immediately after Polymorphia, as a continuation of hisexperiments with sound. Yet in Fluorescences he goes towards - evenbeyond - the boundaries of sonorism' s potential. He did this in two ways:first, he augmented his forces to a full orchestra, with quadruple wind andbrass and, above all a percussion section of vast dimensions: 32 instrumentsfor six players. Secondly, he expanded the repertoire of the orchestra with aseries of 'instruments' worthy of a Hieronymus Bosch. Unconventional ways ofplaying conventional instruments, such as the percussive use of strings,playing the interior of the piano or mouthpieces, were evidently not enough forPenderecki. He thus employed instruments such as an alarm siren and flexatone,pieces of wood, tin and glass, Swiss cowbells, Mexican guiros, Javanese gongs anda typewriter. One might say that Penderecki penetrated beyond the sphere ofmusical 'sound', into that of purely acoustic phenomena known from the modernworld at large.
Listening to Fluorescencesis a fascinating adventure. At first, one is shocked by the explosion ofsound described by W. Schwinger as 'radically cruel' (1994). Their expressiveforce is heightened by a use of extreme dynamic contrasts as well as of colour.
One is soon drawn into the endless display of sonorist snapshots, much in the mannerof 'avant la lettre' video clips. The greatest surprise comes towards thepiece's apex: the orgy of sound, more akin to chaos than music, recedes beforea single note - a pure C, presented by all instruments and in all possibleways. The coda reverts to the previous variety of sound.
Penderecki composed Fluorescencesfor the Donaueschingen Contemporary Music Festival of 1962. Itsperformance, by the South-West German Radio Symphony Orchestra under HansRosbaud, was received as an artistic provocation, which might have been theexact function of the work. As the composer wrote in the concert programme: 'Inthis composition, all I'm interested in is liberating sound beyond alltradition' (1962).
De Natura SonorisII for orchestra (1971), anorchestra miniature, alludes to apiece written five years before, De NaturaSonoris I (1966), though it is wholly different. It takes a restrainedapproach towards pure-sound experimentation, with an aloofness from easy andcrude effects. Written for a notably limited orchestra - no woodwind ortrumpets, few percussion - it seems to favour subtler tones and colours. Whileits predecessor seems to be painted with sound, a somewhat lurid 'still life',the second could be described as a 'sonorist narration'.