Complementary Music by Penderecki and Jonny Greenwood at the Barbican

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Penderecki, Jonny Greenwood: AUKSO Chamber Orchestra of the City of Tychy, Krysztof Penderecki, *Marek Mos (conductors), Grzegorz Barszczewski (lighting design), Marcin Bania, Maciej Malinowski (video), Barbican Hall, London 22.3.2012 (CC)

Penderecki: Threnody for the victims of Hiroshima (1960/61)
Greenwood: Popcorn Superhet Receiver* (2005)
Penderecki: Polymorphia (1961)
Greenwood: 48 Responses to Polymorphia* (2011)

It is the opportunity to hear inspired, stimulating programming such as this that makes one rejoice at living in this great city. Part of Kinotcka (a Polish Film Festival), this was a rare opportunity to see Penderecki conduct some of his most famous pieces. To hear Jonny Greenwood’s responses was more than the icing on the cake; it actually added a whole new dimension to the experience. The whole was further enhanced by striking lighting design and video sequences projected on a huge screen behind the orchestra.

The Threnody for the victims of Hiroshimais surely Penderecki’s most famous score, and it was given a red-raw performance here. The close-ups of what appeared to be leaves on the screen behind suggested the contrast of man’s inhumanity to man against the power of Nature herself – was that a nuclear wind blowing? The performance was one of astonishing power. The AUKSO ensemble makes a tremendous sound, and it was the power of Penderecki’s music that lingered on rather than the effectiveness of the images and lighting.

Greenwood’s Popcorn Superhet Receiver uses a slightly smaller orchestra and is a response to shortwave radio hiss, filtered and then transposed for string players. The tone clusters are directly inspired by Penderecki’s Threnody, but Greenwood has his own voice. He more easily references tonal constructs, using them as part of his vocabulary, introducing them, reshaping them, overpowering them then destroying them. Here the video images seemed perfect: they seemed to be taken from cartoon images of some sci-fi planet. Greenwood’s voice is remarkably gentle. His clusters do not attack you, rather they tend to melt before your ears. The sudden use of octaves is effective; the appearance of rhythms associated with more popular forms of music is somehow expected and works well.

The piece Polymorphia also has links to Threnody, as it takes brain scans of people who were listening to Threnody and then converts the shapes of these scans into music. The video graphic was different cubes which became parts of the walls of a corridor. The string playing of this piece from the AUKSO players was remarkable, from slappings to waves of sound. Interesting how the red lighting itself diminuendo-ed until it was like the embers of some post-Threnody cataclysm.

The final item, Greenwood’s 48 responses to Polymorphia, takes the final chord of the Penderecki (a C major triad!) and converts it into something quite else. The world of the English Pastoralists was not far from the lushness of sonority, nor the tonal/modal sonorities used. Yet this was set against a Constructivist/Futurist video (clean angles, abstract shapes) that seemed simultaneously to complement yet challenge the sounds we heard. Greenwood ensures that we hear melodies straining to be born from the textures he creates, a most effective strategy; at other times, there are clear versions of Penderecki’s gestures. These 48 responses are really 48 ‘moments’ (in the Stockhausen sense of ‘Moment-Form”). In concert, though, I was unsure that the piece sustains its length. Curiously, the recording (Nonesuch) contradicts this and it emerges as a fascinating prism of flashpoints.

To call this stimulating (as I did at the outset of this review) is perhaps to understate the power of the evening. More, please.

Colin Clarke