PENDERECKI: Sextet for Clarinet, Horn, Violin, Viola, Cello and Piano
(2000). Clarinet Quartet (1993). Three Miniatures for Clarinet and Piano
(1956). Divertimento for Solo Cello (1994). Prelude for Solo Clarinet
Michel Lethiec, clarinet; Régis Pasquier, violin;Bruno Pasquier, viola;
Arto Noras, cello; Markus Maskuniitty, French horn; Juhani Lagerspetz,
NAXOS 8.557052 (B) (DDD) TT: 67:48
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Very moving. With only a couple of exceptions, most of Penderecki's chamber
music comes from the first or the latest part of his career. The period
of work he's best known for -- his avant-garde years, with scores like
the Threnody and the Passion According to St. Luke -- has almost no chamber
music in it at all, the composer concentrating on items for large forces.
The early chamber music, from the Fifties, shows traces of Bartók,
a tremendous influence at the time among the more talented composers
of Eastern Europe. In the work of the last twenty or so years, the influence,
though still present, has been completely absorbed.
The big work on the program, the Sextet, shows the mastery of an original
voice. Penderecki, unlike many former radicals, doesn't repent. One still
hears the debt to his own Threnody phase in various passages, but he
has brought that rhetoric in line with more traditional procedures. Indeed,
one also hears echoes of his early, Bartókian work. In short,
in his latest work Penderecki has achieved stylistic integration.
The composer lays out the sextet in two large movements, with the second
movement about twice as long as the first. An outstanding feature of
the work is the instrumentation: clarinet, french horn, piano, violin,
viola, and cello. It affords a wide range of color - wind, brass, strings,
and percussion. It tends to give off a big sound, more like a small orchestra
than the intimacy of most chamber groups, and Penderecki sometimes writes
for it as if it were an orchestra, pitting masses against masses, or
juxtaposing planes of sound, rather than striving for the conversational
interplay of individual voices. The first movement, a tromping, acidic
dance -- "peasant" music stylized in a Bartókian way
--becomes increasingly frenzied , with little islands of rest, as the
music gathers up its breath for another whirl. The end of it summarizes
the two main rhetorical elements -- the tromp and the whirl, before ending
on the whirl. The second movement begins with a long introduction, before
it settles into a lament. The lament gets interrupted three times in
the course of the movement with more jagged, faster music, but these
storms soften with each appearance, while the lament becomes more singing,
heartfelt, and - I'll say it - noble. Throughout, Penderecki's superb
sense of instrumental drama keeps things moving and interesting. On their
face, these are very simple strategies, and yet one confronts a work
of unconventional and thoroughly convincing shape.
The slightly earlier Clarinet Quartet, on the other hand, is terse and
tight, and as nearly as I can tell, monothematic. We've traveled a long
way from the sprawl of Penderecki's middle period. Again, Penderecki
comes up with an usual structure: three "bagatelle" movements
preceding a "farewell" larghetto, longer than the three other
movements combined. The first three movements, though stunning, appeal
more to my intellect than to my passions, unlike the sextet. All the "heart" of
the piece comes in the final movement. One finds oneself in an extended
Mahlerian, Lied von der Erde moment, which seem to suspend time.
Indeed, hardly anything at all seems to happen, and yet one is moved
same, like looking out over a still lake and held by the occasional ripple.
To me, this shows a master composer: eight minutes of Incredibly Slow
which keep your interest.
Although very well-written, the other three pieces on the program don't
aim as high. The Three Miniatures for clarinet and piano are a little
fast-slow-fast suite, again heavily indebted to Bartók's take
on folk music, especially in the last movement. The Prelude for solo
clarinet carries off the feat of filling a compelling four minutes with
just one melody instrument. Penderecki doesn't even get to write the
occasional chord, as Bach does in his suites for solo strings. Paradoxically,
Penderecki's Divertimento for solo cello, written for Rostropovich, does
less with greater resources at hand. I find this the weakest piece on
the disc. To me, it comes across as noodling around. Your mileage may
I've no such reservations about the performances. The players work as
one -- smooth, even suave when called upon, and deliberately rough where
they need to be. Above all, they convey the shape of entire movements
without sacrificing the drama inherent in Penderecki's artistic makeup.
The recorded sound is a little harsher (brighter) than I like it, but
in all this is one of best Naxos releases I've heard, an outstanding
item in the company's intriguing catalogue.
S.G.S. (March 2004)