PENDERECKI: Three Pieces in Olden Style (1963). Serenade (1997). Sinfonietta No. 1 (1992). Sinfonietta No. 2 (1994)*. Intermezzo for 24 Strings (1973). Capriccio for Oboe and String Orchestra (1964).
Artur Pachlewski (clarinet); Jean-Louis Capezzali (oboe); Warsaw Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra/Antoni Wit.
Naxos 8.572212 TT: 58:10.

Hits and misses and points in between. Krzysztof Penderecki's composing career divides into roughly three periods. He first made a splash in the late Fifties through the early Seventies as an avant-garde wonderboy with advanced works that nevertheless found a general audience. In the Seventies, he began to make a rapprochement to traditional procedures, and the new-music crowd yelled "traitor," mistaking means of music-making for quality. Penderecki then went on to his final period, in which he made free use of any means, any style, often within the same piece. This program presents work from all three periods.

The Capriccio belongs in the composer's avant-garde, Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima style. Richard Whitehouse considers it Penderecki in a whimsical mood. I find it merely ugly. The oboist jumps through various "extended" playing techniques to little expressive end.

The Three Pieces in Olden Style, from the same period, nevertheless falls outside Penderecki's avant-gardisme. It's a bit of baroque pastiche -- an air and two minuets. This also caused a few eyebrows to rise, but the music belonged to a film score and within that context had expressive point. Besides, it seemed a one-off. I find the music pleasant but not all that necessary.

The Intermezzo, one of the final works of Penderecki's experimental period, like Strauss's Metamorphosen, exploits the ensemble as a collection of individual strings, presenting not only mass sonorities of dense counterpoint, but kaleidoscopically-changing textures. It begins quietly, builds to a roar (which goes on way too long), and quiets down again. I should point out that the comparison to Strauss refers only to general viewpoint toward ensemble writing. As far as expressivity and sophistication go, it falls way short.

The two Sinfoniettas rework two other pieces: the first, the String Trio; the second, the Clarinet Quintet. At this point, the interest of the program skyrockets. The first movement of the Sinfonietta No. 1 juxtaposes stomps from mass strings against quiet solos and a little triplet motif of rising or falling thirds tossed from one group of strings to another. Roughly midway, we come to a passage for string trio, mostly inward recitative. This leads to a fugato treatment of the triplet idea. One last angry set of stomps gives way to the recitative, which leads directly to the second and last movement. A fugue begins, leading to a long central episode featuring, in Whitehouse's phrase, "spectral pizzicatos" along the way. A contrapuntal gigue, based on the fugal subject, breaks out, and it becomes clear as well that the two leading motifs of the previous movement (the stomp and the triplet, sometimes regularized into duple time) play an important role in this movement as well. The music, full of vim, pulls the listener along. One of Penderecki's best scores
In four movements, the Sinfonietta No. 2, for clarinet and strings, a work which deals in very spare textures. It begins with a nocturne and a long solo for the clarinet. This turns into a duet with the violas. The music evokes the eerie quiet of night. A "vivacissimo" scherzo follows with unison strings. The clarinet joins in and we have the makings of a concertino. The scherzo hesitates, then winds up for another go. This leads directly to the next movement, a serenade marked "tempo di valse." It's a pretty tenuous waltz, more a minuet, if you ask me. Don't expect Strauss or Tchaikovsky. I can barely hear the 3/4 Schwung.

We end on the most substantial movement marked "Abschied: Larghetto" (farewell), filled with Mahlerian gestures and structured mainly as duets and tradeoffs between the solo clarinet and the solo first violin. If you'd ever call Penderecki a great composer, it's here -- a "long goodbye," if ever there was one.

Penderecki composed the two movements of the Serenade for two different occasions, but they fit together very well. The composer calls the first movement a passacaglia -- why, I have no idea -- since it's not structured as variations over a ground. Indeed, it's really a meditation based on imitation among the instruments of two basic ideas. The slow second movement, more than twice as long as the first, yearns Romantically for transcendental parts unknown and comes pretty close. At least I can mention this movement in the same breath as Strauss's Metamorphosen without cringing.

Penderecki should thank whatever gods there be that Antoni Wit has decided to champion his work. I've always considered Wit one of the finest of contemporary conductors, who should have had a much bigger career than many other better-known names. Under his direction, the Warsaw Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra performs impeccably and with passion. The recording levels seem way too high to me, but you can always turn your volume down.

S.G.S. (July 2012)