Krzysztof Penderecki began conducting publicly in the early 1970s to champion his own music, gradually expanding his range and skills to the point that throughout his career he has been as devoted to performing other people’s music as he is to making his own. One can hear the conductor’s ear in his orchestration, in the range of colour and subtlety he finds in unorthodox combinations of instruments, and in the sheer daring of the wild contrasts of mood and dynamics he frequently employs in his symphonic works and operas. He favours large ensembles, complexity and nervous juxtapositions, a musical style that demands a skilled leader at the micro- and macroscopic levels.
In a special-edition series made with the Polish Sinfonia Iuventus Orchestra, an ensemble that draws on recent graduates of top conservatoires, Penderecki conducts his own symphonies in readings that are presumably definitive. He, at least, has declared these recordings the best survey of his symphonies now available. With the exception of the unfinished Symphony No 6, listeners have here his symphonies complete, ranging from the ‘sonoristic’ technique of his 1973 Symphony No 1, which looked back to expressionistic avant-garde scores such as the 1960 Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima, to the epically scaled, romantically inflected symphonic-choral works that he has labelled Symphonies Nos 7 and 8. It is clearly a labour of love for composer, and if the student playing is sometimes rougher than one hears on another recently completed cycle (from Antoni Wit and the Polish National RSO on Naxos), it is never less than entirely committed and passionately rendered.
Penderecki declared his Symphony No 1 to be more of a summation and a break than a grand initial statement of purpose. The composer was then 40 years old and a familiar figure of the European avant-garde. His orchestral music was almost entirely abstract, an outpouring of sonic angst in tone clusters, microtones and non-traditional instrumental techniques, heavy on percussion and glissandos, a wailing, bristling, snarling forest of threatening sounds. But by the 1970s, he was feeling constrained by the idiom with which he was so closely identified: ‘True to avant-garde logic, this grand destruction involved a longing for a new cosmogony, too,’ he wrote of this ferociously anarchic four-movement work. The ‘new cosmogony’ began to emerge with the Violin Concerto of 1976 and the Christmas Symphony (No 2) a few years later.
Penderecki’s operas, especially The Devils of Loudun and The Black Mask, are studies in relentless, multivalent, darkly absurd and even violent energies
It’s easy to hear the break and tempting to put the First Symphony in its own category. But hearing these works together gives one a more profound sense of Penderecki’s consistency over decades. Later works, including the problematic Symphony No 4 (which won the prestigious Grawemeyer Award) and the taut, compelling one-movement Symphony No 5, in which he struggles to assert control over a more confined but equally unruly musical language, feel more like translations of the sonoristic style into a highly chromatic but plausibly tonal universe, not so much a rupture as a reduction and inflection of similar impulses.
It’s not until Symphony No 3, finished after Nos 4 and 5, that one hears the full import of this development. Things that were sound effects in the earlier language have become symbols or recurring motifs in the new style, which is frenetic, given to manic repetition and almost always soaked in a sometimes suffocating gloom. Ostinato figures that conveyed pure, mindless fury in the First Symphony become structural, recurring signposts in the Third, especially in the Passacaglia movement, which was premiered separately and seems to have been the germ of the larger work. Descending half-tone figures, a recurring taste for the chromaticism of Tristan and a love of the lower depths of the orchestral palette mark most of the work written during and after the 1980s.
The key here may be Penderecki’s other career, as an enormously effective composer for the opera stage. Penderecki’s operas, especially The Devils of Loudun and The Black Mask, are studies in relentless, multivalent, darkly absurd and even violent energies, an aesthetic that connects him to the Polish modernist literary tradition. His characters, though clearly defined, don’t so much enact plots as they are unleashed for a confined period of pure mayhem. Even in the more romantic language that Penderecki developed in the late 1970s and ’80s, his symphonic works are connected to this dramatic style: episodic, scattered and ungoverned, except by a kind of cinematic logic that, again, relates back to the First Symphony and its precursors.
This kind of music calls for a lot of shaping, and for that reason alone this series is as much to be recommended as Wit’s worthy Naxos account, where the sound is somewhat less dry and the playing often warmer and more assured. Fortunately, for anyone wavering between the two choices, the new cycle features a mostly fine cast of singers for the huge vocal-choral scores of Symphony No 7 (Seven Gates of Jerusalem) and Symphony No 8 (based on poems of Eichendorff, Rilke, Brecht, Hesse and others). With these scores, the connection to the operas becomes more apparent and there is a suggestion of yet another summation – and yet more continuity – in the evolving language of Poland’s greatest living composer.