PENDERECKI: Viola Concerto. Cello Concerto No. 2.
Grigori Zhislin (viola); Tatjana Vassiljeva (cello); Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra/Antoni Wit.
Naxos 8.572211 TT: 57:33.

Fifty-fifty. Penderecki began as a star of the avant-garde. In the Seventies, he broke with his past and began on a more conventionally Modernist, even neo-Romantic path. Now, he basically combines the avant-garde and the Modernist as he feels like it. Both works on this CD come from this current phase.

The quality of Penderecki's work varies enormously. He can turn out masterpieces and near-masterpieces, and he can also numb your eardrums.

These concerti appeared a year apart. Both resort to the same structure -- one large movement in several sections -- to the same strategies of composition, and to the same sort of language. However the viola concerto (1983) is a taut, closely-argued, and compelling work, while the cello concerto (1982), written for Rostropovich and thus a more "public" score, at almost twice the length makes far less than half the effect. It's like listening to a boring lecturer or sermonizer drone on during some Great Occasion. Unrelentingly serious, it wants to talk about big things and impresses you only with its failed yearning to say something important.

Ultimately, I think it comes down to the quality and memorability of the basic material. Five minutes after hearing the cello concerto (over several listens), I can recall only one specific detail. It doesn't matter which one, because it seems to have been absolutely random. On the other hand, the viola concerto grabs hold and doesn't let go. To a great extent it varies the interval of the second, minor and major, descending and ascending. This sounds like a recipe for tedium, but Penderecki rings fascinating changes on the idea. For example, at one point, you hear the B-A-C-H (Bb-A-C-B) motif or something very like it. The rhetorical structure -- that is, the emotional arc of the music -- is absolutely masterful, moving in and out of instability, ennui, and aggression, and always with no section outstaying its welcome. I'm not a big fan of reading ideas into a piece of music, and I merely report what I myself get from my listening. Your mileage may vary. In that, it seems to me, lies the strength of this concerto. The important thing to note is that it does emotionally connect and pretty directly, at that.

No complaints at all about the performances. Antoni Wit I think a terribly underrated conductor, should be leading the Berlin Philharmonic fairly regularly. Vassiljeva has a big, Rostropovich-like tone and stands up to whatever Penderecki throws at her. She simply doesn't get the "A" material. Zhislin does and turns the viola into a star instrument. Penderecki's writing takes into account the tendency of the orchestra to bury a solo viola, so Zhislin gets a lot of soliloquy and accompanied recitative as well as trade-offs with the mass orchestra where a smaller group supports him. The composer also takes care to give the viola exclusive flying rights in whatever register it finds itself, something he isn't always so punctilious about in the cello concerto. The Warsaw Philharmonic sounds thick in the cello concerto and lean and mean in the viola concerto. The difference lies solely in Penderecki's scoring. Wit and his players do what they can for the cello concerto, but it's like trying to swim in caramel. The recorded sound is fine, well within current audio standards.

S.G.S. (December 2011)