Penderecki Gives Exhilarating Accounts of Shostakovich ….. and Penderecki

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Penderecki, Shostakovich: Radovan Vlatkovic ( horn) London Philharmonic Orchestra Krzysztof Penderecki (conductor), Royal Festival Hall, London, 14.10.2015 (GD)

Penderecki:  Adagio for strings  (UK premiere)
Concerto for Horn and Orchestra, ‘Winterreise’ (UK premiere)
Threnody to the victims of Hiroshima
Shostakovich  Symphony No. 6in B minor, Op.54

Originally this concert was to have included the UK premiere of a Harp Concerto by Penderecki but this was substituted, at quite short notice, by the composer’s Concerto for Horn and Orchestra which has been recently recorded.

The Adagio for Strings (2013) is actually a reworking for string orchestra of the third movement of his Third Symphony (1995). It has an overall contemplative tone and develops from the unchanging opening plangent string figuration marked dolce (‘sweetly’). The ‘exposition’ is subtended by a pulse-like movement, from which develop various tonal contrasts/juxtapositions from major to minor, with clusters of bi-tonal modulations. As tonight’s programme notes inform us ‘solo string instruments take the place of haunted wind and horn solos with a muted cello part suggesting the chime of a celeste’. All this is wonderfully crafted and worked into the work’s overall design. In a sense, stylistically, the work looks back to the adagios of Bruckner and early Schoenberg, while at the same time having a distinct voice of its own. I was surprised that antiphonal violins were not deployed? But with the composer conducting I suppose such considerations are made redundant? The LPO strings excelled themselves, especially the rich sonorities from celli and basses. The violins did not always have the opulent largesse of, say, the Berlin Philharmonic, but this music is not always suited to such tonal luxuries.    

Attaching the title ‘Winterreise’ to the Horn Concerto has caused much speculation(and confusion) in relation to Schubert’s great song cycle of the same name. Penderecki has made it clear that he meant no association with the Schubert work. For him it is merely a reflection of the extensive travelling he made particularly in 2007-8 encompassing China and South America, as well as numerous European locations. Apart from some spectacular sounds from the horn (glissandi, juxtaposition of high and low registers) all played with stunning virtuosity and insight by Radovan Vlatkovik, the work is quite conventional in form and content. What made it particularly appealing was its absolute economy – packing so much into a duration of 16 minutes! The various themes in the first section ‘Lento assai’, based on a ground passacaglia harmonised so well with the accompanying offstage horn harmonies. Every instrumental strand, including even timpani,  intermeshed perfectly with the movement’s overall design. As has been noted, the final ‘Rondo (‘Allegro vivace’) again includes virtuoso solo horn parts, as in the opening blaring horn tones. The rapid mid-movement dance rhythms, sometimes accerlerating into a gallop, reminded me of those exquisite rondo hunting finales in Mozart’s Horn Concertos (or, I should say, a modernist, slightly angst, Mozart.) The concerto ends with a short cadenza-like phrase followed by a strongly rhythmic, dynamic crescendo building up to a triple forte resilient sounding coda. Although, as noted above, the composer denied any allusions to Schubert or any other composer quite a few commentators have found such links even stretching to Mahler! I couldn’t really identify any themes from Schubert, but this didn’t  stop our programme note writer conjuring up images of ‘the Alpine vistas of Schubert Bruckner and Mahler’. Well, I suppose that if you really want to hear such soundscapes here, you will…  The LPO responed magnificently to every one of the composer/conductor’s demands.

As a kind of  footnote, the  concerto Vlatkovic gave us a delicious encore in the shape of Penderecki’s miniature for horn solo Capriccio – ‘A hunters dream’. I can’t imagine Penderecki endorsing hunting? But apart from that we heard some incredible horn sonorities, tonal juxtapositions and bizarre  sounds. It was almost as if both composer and soloist were demonstrating just what the instrument is capable of.

Penderecki composed his Hiroshima Threnody for 52 strings in 1960. It brought him almost immediate fame and recognition. He received the UNESCO award in 1961. In the 60’s Penderecki was seen, along with Boulez, Stockhausen and Nono (to name just a few) as part of the avant-garde. This was a time when new, experimental music was taken seriously, encouraged, in contrast to the rather bland eclecticism of our own era – one of Adorno’s fears.  Later in the 70’s Penderecki changed course, looking backwards rather than forwards. His works still had an underlying tension, but they were basicically rooted in traditional tonal and harmonic formations, for which he was much criticised. The title he finally gave to the work still has a resonance. It is amazing how many still ascribe to the Harry S Truman Line that the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in order to end the war and save the lives of US soldiers who were due to attack Japan. In reality the decision was much more complex and multi-layered. Gar Alperovitz’s scrupulously researched book ‘The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb and the Architecture of an American Myth’ makes compelling, and sometimes troubled reading. Penderecki has always been affected by political ethical issues, especially the genocidal horrors of the Nazi invasion occupation of his native Poland. In the Threnody he directs the musicians to play at various unspecified points;  like Xenakis Penderecki is focused here on new textual effects; contrasts between clusters of tonality and bi-tonality,  directions to play on the opposite side of the bridge, or to slap the body of the instrument and the intensification of traditional chromaticism by using ‘microtonality, composing in quarter tones. Needless to say the LPO responded to this difficult work superbly. Penderecki’s conducting (without baton) was a model of economy, with no fashionable histrionic effects or rostrum antics. He achieved a model of clarity and instrumental balance.

Penderecki was in his element in Shostakovich’s 6th Symphony (a work he has conducted frequently) particularly in the spacious and brooding opening Largo. I don’t think I have ever heard a rendition of this movement which so successfully blended the long melodic lines with their increasingly complex contrasts and modulations, the basis of the essential forward pace of the movement. Because nothing was exaggerated – nothing drawn out – the ghostly effects of a tam-tam stroke and the fluttering flute arabesques over agitated lower strings had an utterly haunting effect. The second movement was remarkable in the way in which Penderecki fully projected the various dynamic levels, only letting out full throttle at the climatic passage with full percussion and angry brass ending in a dazzling solo for timpani. All this had a distinctly burlesque, even carnivalesque tone. But in contrast to this Penderecki conveyed the lyrical, playful aspects of the music and the delicate coda with pp timpani taps was as subtle  as I have heard it.

Similarly the final movement, a rondo in B major, was a delight from beginning to end. As in the more famous Fifth Symphony some commentators have detected a note of sham hollowness here. The bold rhythms,  prancing melodies and ‘sliding harmonies’ all sounding, to some ears,  a tad contrived, but perhaps it is better to see/hear the movement more as incredibly engaging, high spirited, and occasionally vulgar (in the best sense of the word) music. Our composer/conductor, obviously believing in it totally, urged a slight but powerful crescendo towards the coda which was delivered with all the bizarre, carnivalesque power the score asks for.  

This was an exhilarating and compelling concert. I look forward to more Penderecki, his music old and new, and his conducting of other composers music, especially Shostakovich. Penderecki tonight certainly applied his composers ‘instincts and perceptions’ This does not always apply to all composer/conductors, but we had it in spades tonight.

Geoff Diggines.




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