PENDERECKI Missa brevis. Psalms of David
By his own admission, the Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki has ‘spent decades searching for and discovering new sounds’. Nowhere are the breadth and variety of these discoveries more evident than on the latest disc in Dux’s Penderecki Special Edition series – a second volume of choral works performed by the Polish Chamber Choir. The repertoire here stretches from the composer’s earliest choral work, the Psalms of David (1958), to his Missa brevis (completed in 2012) – from ferocious, percussion-driven violence to unaccompanied neo-classical sweetness, via the chant-inspired formality of Utrenja. The guiding thread through music constantly evolving and reimagining itself is Catholicism and its liturgy.
Commissioned by the Bach Archive in Leizig for the 800th anniversary of St Thomas’s Church, the Missa brevis is written with the particular sonority of children’s voices in mind. The unaccompanied polyphonic lines look back to the Renaissance without ever surrendering to pastiche, distilling the essence of the Mass without losing its spiritual scope. So excellent in Vol 1 of Penderecki’s choral music, the Polish Chamber Choir here suffer from confining themselves to a childlike whiteness of tone. Under Jan Łukaszewski’s direction, the upper voices particularly feel pinched and one-dimensional, lacking the bloom that emerges to colour the Psalms of David and the glorious setting of Psalm 129. The men, however, bring exceptional warmth and depth to ‘Ashche i wo grob z jutrzni’ from Utrenja II, offering a sound always rooted in the bass.
Penderecki’s choral music might be less familiar than his large-scale orchestral works but it’s a microcosm of this composer’s extraordinary breadth. This disc is an essential addition to a slim recording catalogue, and if I wish that the singers had found the muscular flexibility of the Netherlands Chamber Choir’s 2004 album of Penderecki (Globe), then that’s just a small quibble.