KRZYSZTOF PENDERECKI: Adagietto from “Paradise Lost”; Chaconne “In memoriam John Paul II”; Agnus Dei from “Requiem”; Intermezzo for 24 Strings; De profundis from “Seven Gates of Jerusalem”; Serenade for Strings; 3 Pieces in Baroque Style; Sinfonietta for Strings – Albrecht Mayer, horn/ Artur Haufa, violin/ Artu Paciorkiewicz, viola/ Jerzy Klocek, cello/ Sinfonia Varvisia Orchestra/ Krysztof Penderecki, conductor – DUX 0678, 62:54 ***1/2 [Distr. by Qualiton]:

I remember being stunned to my socks when first hearing Penderecki’s St. Luke Passion back in 1974. That old RCA recording really packed a wallop, the massive choral textures overwhelmingly haunting, a music never heard (and if you looked at the notation, never seen) before, and as powerful an experience as you could imagine. A few years earlier I heard his Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima live, and the experience was electrifying if somewhat puzzling. And again, in that same year during the summer I was able to witness a performance of his Cello Sonata, and was surprised that any performer would subject his instrument to such a physical battering.

When I read an article that the composer had “gone tonal” it shocked me to no end. Was it possible? But when I read more about the man himself, and the great spiritual dimension to him that most people missed, it was not as surprising. The avantgarde works that propelled him into fame were merely expressionistic means to an end, and when the thrill was gone the medium had to be changed.

The problem is that I have not been as convinced of his newer, more accessible pieces than of the first shockers; but sometimes he hits very big indeed, and repeated hearings do reward the emotions and the intellect. Take for instance, the Agnus Dei on this album—it has a deep similarity to the probing and heart-rending effects found in the slow movement to Shostakovich’s Eighth Quartet. And there are other similarities in tone among these works here, all under eight minutes in length. These are pieces for chamber orchestra, and the Intermezzo is probably the only one that most will find problematic—it’s yearning and violently stretched chromaticism do take a lot of patience to get through.

I think it is the sameness of many of these pieces that one finds uncomfortable all in one sitting. It is a relief when we get to his neoclassic works like the 3 Pieces in Baroque Style and the Sinfonietta, both gorgeous pieces and worthy of more performances. We can assume that these are definitive all, and the recording and playing is top notch.

Yet there are better albums if one is just coming to this master. Aside from above-mentioned works in the first paragraph, I would suggest the “Penderecki Gala” CD on Sony (with a better version of the Sinfonietta by these same forces); Anne-Sophie Mutter’s recording of the Second Violin Concerto on DGG, the wonderful Clarinet Quartet and String Trio on cpo, and the Polish Requiem on Naxos. Otherwise, if you want to add to an extensive Penderecki collection, this will fit the bill.

— Steven Ritter