PENDERECKI: Piano Concerto "Resurrection." Concerto for Flute and Chamber Orchestra.
Barry Douglas (piano), Lukasz Dlugosz (flute), Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra/Antoni Wit.
Naxos 8.572696 TT: 60:30.

Big-boned and cramped. Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki began as an enfant terrible of the avant-garde. As such, he gained a surprisingly large following, due to a strong dramatic and essentially Romantic sensibility. Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima with its screeching strings actually became a modest hit in the Sixties. He then tended to put out music that had affinities with Webern and late Stravinsky, although he never adopted orthodox serial techniques wholeheartedly. Around 1975 and the Violin Concerto No. 1, he began to change, relaxing the austerity of his style in favor of long, lyric (though still dissonant) melodies. Since then, his essential Romanticism has grown more and more apparent, and he has also revealed an affinity for the music written between the world wars. Predictably, this led some to dismiss Penderecki as a Traitor to the Cause and a hack, whoring for popularity. I admit I find Penderecki inconsistent throughout his career in terms of quality. The powerful stands side-by-side with the why-bother. Indeed, the works on this program demonstrate Penderecki's inconsistency. Yet no one concentrates on Beethoven's potboilers in assessing his worth as a composer. No one determines Bach's stature on the basis of the Capriccio on the Departure of a Beloved Brother. Why do the equivalent with Penderecki?

The Piano Concerto (2002, rev. 2007) works with basically two ideas for over 35 minutes: an insistent, repeating half-step; a drop down of a minor third followed by a chromatic fill-in to the initial tone and its inverse (a rise of a minor third followed by the downward fill-in to the initial tone). It's a very tight thematic argument. Each of these ideas as well as their components receives extensive development over the course of the concerto, which is played without pause. I can't even call it a multi-movement concerto (though it does fall into sections); to me, it's a single giant musical argument. However, that's just lagniappe and says little about the power this concerto generates. Penderecki dramatizes the conflict between a brutal mechanization and a Slavic modal chorale, the latter of which, incidentally, is the diatonic Doppelgänger of the second idea. Soloist and orchestra pummel one another equally, rather than one or the other becoming the star. The chorale debuts early on in the piece, but shyly, and the concerto records its gradual dominance of the argument until it smashes full force at the emotional climax of the piece. Then it recedes, and the concerto leaves with the brutal idea insisted upon. I can't say whether the score will ever become a Classic, because I can't read the future. I will, however, say that it overwhelmed me.

The Flute Concerto (1992) works much more subtly, so subtly indeed that for me it works not at all. I sense something by-the-numbers about it. It's in five movements played without a break, and unlike the Piano Concerto, it exemplifies most concertos of its type, beginning with the Mendelssohn. The movements are distinct, despite the appearance of the same ideas in several movements. However, the themes (with the exception of that in the fourth movement) don't really stick in the memory, and the rhetoric is diffuse, rather than concentrated. The soloist is less a hero than a chamber primus inter pares. Despite some interesting oppositions between soloist and orchestral sections, the concerto fizzles out fairly early and fades away, a classic example of Who Cares. Your mileage may vary
No complaints about the performers, however, who give each work their all. I've long considered Antoni Wit one of the finest conductors now working and have wondered why he hasn't had a well-deserved superstar career. Is it because he's based in Poland? Barry Douglas gives a predictably power-house performance. Lukasz Dlugosz, at times overwhelmed by Penderecki's miscalculations in scoring (the composer later revised the work for clarinet), nevertheless invests a thankless enterprise with a strong, beautiful tone and sensitive musicianship.

S.G.S. (November 2014)