Penderecki makes triumphant return to BA
For the Herald
Polish composer rewarded with ovation at the Blue Whale after premièring his own creations
An old friend of our city came back after a long period and received an ovation at the packed Blue Whale of the CCK: Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki, aged 82. In the 1970s, two scores of his made a vivid impression here: the Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima, and the St Luke Passion (conducted by Henryk Czyz, and unfortunately not played since). Later Penderecki came to BA in several seasons conducting his own works, and in one visit with a Hamburg orchestra, the standard repertoire. He became a respected and admired artist in Buenos Aires.
Along with Witold Lutoslawski, Penderecki was clearly at the head of the astonishing Polish composers of the period after World War II. Having gone through terrible experiences during the war, they and many others found the sounds for a new era. They did it in parallel to the great filmmakers led by Andrzej Wajda, Jerzy Kawalerowicz and Roman Polanski, who conveyed the transformation of an injured society in unforgettable images.
Unfortunately, the hand programmes of the National Symphony (ONS) contain no information on the scores, which is unfair to both the audience and the composer. So I did some research. Picture the young years of Penderecki after his musical studies at Cracow (one of Poland’s most lovely cities) during the Iron Curtain years. Even in those times, the Western avant-garde crept in, and Penderecki knew Stockhausen, Nono and Boulez. After receiving a traditional musical education, he decided to experiment with sound and soon was producing some of the most radical and imaginative works of what an analyst called “Sonorism”: Fluorescences, Polymorphia, De Natura Sonoris I and II, represented his position at the time; he wrote in 1962: “All I’m interested is liberating sound beyond all tradition.”
But by the time he was 40, he felt differently, and when he was teaching at the Yale School of Music (the same institution that was graced decades before by the presence of no less than Hindemith) he said: “This experimentation and formal speculation is more destructive than constructive. I was saved from the avant-garde snare of formalism by a return to tradition.” How curious that he should attack the West for formalism, the same grave fault — according to the Soviets — of composers who were very different indeed from the avant-garde musicians: Prokofiev and Shostakovich. My own idea is that, after being genuinely innovative, he didn’t burn the past as others did but incorporated it, for our present is the summing up of all our pasts. And he felt, as others did, that you can give a personal stamp to tonal music. Indeed, Penderecki’s music of all his styles is intense, dramatic and searching. When tonal it has plenty of dissonant climaxes, and dense, complicated textures.
But his experimental music obviously touched a nerve, for such filmmakers as Kubrick, Lynch and Scorsese used it. And the later Penderecki wrote the music for the tremendous Wajda film on Katyn, the Soviet massacre of Polish officers. The composer’s ability to create dramatic music shows in his operas The Devils of Loudun (on witchcraft) and Ubu Rex (premièred at the Colón in 2004), an antecedent of surrealism and the theatre of the absurd.
The results of his new views on music showed on many fields. Penderecki is a devout Catholic and has written many important works apart from the mentioned Passion (Magnificat, Stabat Mater, etc.). But he has been equally prolific in writing concerti and symphonies, and that’s the field he displayed in this visit.
He started with the Adagio movement from his Third Symphony, in the arrangement he made for strings. The score has several other movements. The Adagio is very tonal and shows a perfect command of textures. It lasts 10 minutes and grows gradually to a potent climax before subsiding into calmer fields.
The Concerto grosso is a sui generis work written for three cellos and big orchestra, a combination I’ve never heard before. Baroque Concerti grossi are generally for two violins, cello and string ensemble, and Stravinsky’s Neoclassic one is for strings and short. Penderecki, however, wrote six movements all joined to each other and in contrasting speeds, where the three cellos combine their phrases but find themselves in dialogue with multiple soloists from the orchestra: violin, viola, cello, bass, winds. The contrapunctal writing is masterly and the variety of colours fascinates. It was admirably played by Eduardo Vasallo, Jorge Pérez Tedesco and José Araujo. Vasallo was a guest, for although he is Argentine he has been first cello of the Birmingham Symphony since 1989. The National Symphony collaborated with great concentration and good solos and Penderecki showed that at 82 he maintains his fine control as conductor.
He has written eight symphonies by now, although the Sixth is still in progress. The Fourth is named Adagio, for that is the principal tempo, but it contrasts with two long faster movements (II, Più animato; IV, Allegro). The five movements again form a continuous block, 35 minutes of coherent and powerful music in which I felt a Shostakovich influence though with Penderecki’s personal character. Three trumpets were placed far from the orchestra at the entrance of the hall and gave intense interventions with the main orchestra, of continuous variety of moods and colours.
The orchestra responded well to the composer’s firm indications. Welcome back, Penderecki premièring his own creations.