PENDERECKI Symphony No 2 DVOŘÁK Symphony No 7
Don’t approach Krzysztof Penderecki’s Christmas Symphony expecting sleigh bells and festive frolics. It’s a dark, sombre work, more ‘Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse’ than ‘Three Wise Men’. Commissioned by Zubin Mehta and the New York Philharmonic, it is an overtly tonal work, coming after the crunchy chord clusters of his avant-garde First Symphony. There’s a late 19th-century richness and neo-Romantic language to the writing, brooding and densely scored. Composition began on Christmas Eve 1979 and the symphony contains a brief four-note phrase quoting the opening of the carol ‘Silent Night’ (first heard at 3'52"), hence its unofficial subtitle.
Penderecki has recorded the Second before, with the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra for EMI in 1983, but revisits the work here with the Sinfonia Varsovia, of which he has been artistic director since 2003. He takes a marginally more expansive view second time around and enjoys a weightier recording, the Varsovia brass on particularly impressive form, with brutal punch to the chords at 11'18". After its knotty development and scherzo, there’s some lustrous heroic glitter (31'15") before the symphony sinks into its resigned finale. It’s a fine account but doesn’t necessarily displace Antoni Wit’s recording, which is marginally tighter and enjoys decent 1999 Naxos sound.
The choice of coupling is rather odd – few things could be further from the Christmas Symphony’s gloom than Dvořák’s sunny Seventh – but Penderecki offers a sprightly reading with plenty of pep. The Warsaw woodwinds charm and chirrup in the symphony’s pastoral moments and the Scherzo is light on its feet, at a similar tempo to Rafael Kubelík’s much-loved Berlin Philharmonic recording on DG. The finale rolls along at a portly gait where the blood needs to pump a little more urgently, but the playing is entirely amiable.