|PENDERECKI: Concerto for Violin and Orchestra
No. 1. "Metamorphosen" Concerto for Violin and Orchestra
Konstanty Kulka; Chee-Yun, violinists; Polish National Radio Symphony Orch/Antoni
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Volume 4 in Naxos's survey of Krzysztof Penderecki's orchestral works
gives us the composer's two violin concerti. Penderecki's sun shone most
brightly in the Sixties and early Seventies, as far as critical opinion
mattered. A large Romantic artistic nature had allied itself with avant-garde
techniques in such works as the Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima,
Polymorphia, and St. Luke Passion. I must admit that while I recognized
the effect these works had on audiences -- Penderecki became on U. S.
college campuses an almost iconic figure, a badge of Good Taste and General
Cool, like William Golding, Bob Dylan, and J. R. R. Tolkien -- I never
particularly cared for the works themselves. I didn't mind the avant-garde
part. I loved Elliott Carter, Edgard Varèse, and late Stravinsky.
Penderecki's music at that time, however, struck me as unfocussed, great
baggy monsters and a bit facile besides.
Around the mid-Seventies, Penderecki began a stylistic transformation.
The harmonies became less nebulous and the rhythms more regular, even
traditional. The first violin concerto, from this period, aroused controversy
at its premiere. The hard-core with-its screamed sell-out. Those less
doctrinaire (on both sides of the radical-conservative divide) decided
to wait and see. After all, style doesn't mean quality, and most active
artists don't want to continue turning out what they've done before.
Just writing down music -- that is, the physical act of putting dots
and lines on a page -- is fairly tedious work, even with software help.
There's enough of the Same Old Thing in that activity for composers to
demand a treat for themselves: the excitement of writing down something
new they can't wait to hear. From our current vantage, I think it pretty
clear that Penderecki felt he had exhausted the radical path and that
he turned to the western European tradition (and to some extent Polish
national sources), not for appropriation or imitation, but for inspiration
-- prods to get going.
I still find him hit-and-miss, focus-and-blur, from work to work and
sometimes within a work. The ability of, say, a Stravinsky always to
say the real right thing at the real right time eludes him. Part of this
may stem from his rather garrulous nature. He doesn't seem able to say
anything except at length. I've never come across a genuine Penderecki
miniature. However, the violin concerti are among his best works. They both play
out over rather long spans. Premiered by Isaac Stern, the first (for
many years, the only) uses mainly three basic ideas -- a held note or
chord, an upward chromatic run, and a downward chromatic run, often functioning
rhetorically as a "sigh." Penderecki treats each idea like
a dramatist, assigning each mainly to either the soloist or the orchestra.
For instance, the held note usually appears in the orchestra. The violin
usually states the upward run, giving its music the quality of yearning.
The orchestra usually gets the sigh. The composer generates a host of
variations from this extremely simple material. More important, he builds
a convincing rhetorical structure from one long movement: an introduction
of the basic ideas, exposition, funereal slow movement, scherzo (which
owes something to Shostakovich), a "recitative," a toccata,
a short revisiting of each section, and a more-or-less traditional solo
cadenza before the wind-up, a beautiful, haunted epilogue for the solo
violin, solo viola, and in general the low instruments of the orchestra.
Even without the presence of hummable "tunes," the composer
comes up with such distinctive ideas that listeners should have no trouble
finding their way through the piece.
Penderecki wrote his second violin concerto for Anne-Sophie Mutter. The
subtitle, "Metamorphosen," refers to a technique of continual
variations of a basic idea: in this case, a minor third. The first statement
of this is an upward chromatic run to the minor third and then a fallback
to the tonic note. A second statement is an upward diatonic run to the
minor third. A third statement is simply a leap to the minor third, fallback
to the tonic, and leap to the augmented fourth -- which is, if you think
about it, simply two minor thirds, one superimposed on the other (eg,
C - E-flat - G-flat). And so on. Variations and decorations quickly enter
the argument. If not a minor third, why not a downward major third or
an upward minor sixth? Like the first concerto, the one-movement second
falls into several major sections. It differs from the first in that
the writing is more focused and more lyrical and dance-like. The orchestra
plays a larger role in the second. Although it has plenty of opportunity
to shine, the violin isn't so obvious a "star" as in the first.
I think of the first as "Dionysian" and the second as "Apollonian." Both,
however, inhabit the same emotional territory: struggle and lament. I
slightly prefer the second, but for no really good reason. They both
stand among the best of the twentieth century.
These are knock-out performances. Antoni Wit hasn't had a superstar career,
but I like him better than at least some of the current Big Deals. He
knows how to bring out the emotion behind the notes without stepping
over into wallowing. He allows the music to retain its architectural
shape. You always know where in the piece you are. Neither performance
is a "read-through." The Poles play with an incisiveness born
of great familiarity. Kulka is a solid, even elegant soloist, although
I miss sometimes the passion in the part. On the other hand, Chee-Yun
in the second gets sparks to fly. You can take her intonation for granted,
but not her big, heroic tone and incredible rhythm. She may very well
become the next violin superstar.
One of Naxos's best.
S.G.S. (June 2003)