PENDERECKI: Symphony No. 8 "Lieder der Vergänglichkeit"* (2005). Dies irae^ (1967). Aus den Psalmen Davids (1958).
*Michaela Kaune (soprano); *Agnieszka Rehlis (mezzo); *Wojtek Drabowicz (baritone); ^Anna Lubariska (mezzo); ^Ryszard Minkiewicz (tenor); ^Jaroslaw Brek (bass-baritone); Warsaw National Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra/Antoni Wit.
Naxos 8.570450 (B) (DDD) TT: 72:45.

When he is good … . Krzysztof Penderecki has written some of the most powerful scores of the postwar period. He has also produced bloated, gassy monsters, apparently when he forgets to trust his musical impulses and gets caught up in message and philosophy. The Symphony No. 8, subtitled "Songs of Transitoriness," is less symphony than extended song cycle for soprano, mezzo, baritone, and chorus, on texts by Eichendorff, Hesse, Rilke, Goethe, and others. It begins well, with a magical setting of Eichendorff's "Nachts" (at night), and quickly goes downhill from there. You will probably forget most, if not all of the other songs. Furthermore, Penderecki fails to provide a convincing progression, of poems or of musical rhetoric. It's really one thing after another rather than, as with Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde, a purposeful, truly symphonic drive to some goal.

Penderecki composed Dies irae (day of wrath) for the unveiling at Auschwitz-Birkenau of the International Monument to the Victims of Fascism. I'm a bit ambivalent about the monument, which for me threatens to turn into a sick joke about hypocrisy. After all, Poland and Western Russia saw some of the worst atrocities against Jews as well as, I must admit, some of the noblest efforts to save Jews. Any art on the Holocaust takes huge risks -- the trivialization of unthinkable human horror perhaps the greatest risk of all. Penderecki succeeds against the odds, mainly because he doesn't minimize or sentimentalize the suffering and the deaths. The mini-oratorio falls into three movements: "Lamentatio," "Apocalypsis," and "Apotheosis." "Lamentatio" sets Holocaust poems by Polish writers Wladyslaw Broniewski and Tadeusz Rozewitzc, as well as French poet Louis Aragon's "Auschwitz." It begins in weeping and rises to uncomprehending screams, like those of animals, who suffer the pain without speculating about reasons. Penderecki doesn't pretend to have answers. He becomes, more than anything else, a recorder here.

" Apocalypsis" -- using parts of Psalm 116, Revelations (the woes, the opening of the seals, and the war in heaven), and Aeschylus's Eumenides -- makes the most use of avant-garde techniques, evoking the Holocaust not through volume as much as through strangeness. The Psalmist prays to God for deliverance from the tortures of hell. The movement reminds me of Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel figure with his hand over one eye, horrified by what he sees and unable not to look. "Apotheosis" continues with verses from Revelation, Corinthians, and Paul Valéry's "Le Cimetière marin" (graveyard by the sea), with its heartrending line, "il faut tenter de vivre!" (let's try to live) repeated at the end. Again, Penderecki has no transcendence to offer, resists trying to force moral epiphany in the wake of the incomprehensible, and winds up with the human and the genuine.

Adorno famously wondered how anyone with a moral conscience could write poetry after Auschwitz, and then went on to give one answer to his own question. Poetry, ritual, art in general, helps us remember, reminds those of us not even born at the time that we must touch such suffering we were lucky to miss first-hand, not only to honor those victims, but to remain human ourselves. Penderecki passes that test.

Aus den Psalmen Davids (from the Psalms of David) sets brief excerpts from the following: Psalm 28 ("To you, Lord, I cry"), Psalm 30 ("I will exalt you, Lord, for you … did not choose my enemies over me"), Psalm 43 ("For you are God, my strength. Why have you rejected me?"), and Psalm 143 ("Lord, hear my prayer"). This little choral suite helped introduce Penderecki to the Polish public. An early work, it shows fairly clear influences from both Stravinsky and Schoenberg as well as the seeds of the personal idiom that came to full fruition in Dies irae. All four of these settings are fairly stark, even Psalm 30, interpreted by most other composers as celebration, as if Penderecki emphasized the penitential strain of the poet-king David. Psalm 43 -- crying, "Why do I go about in mourning, while the enemy oppresses me?" -- evokes agitation of the speaker fleeing, running to ground. The last psalm, however, gives us a noble end, despite its dissonance, reminiscent in feeling of the final bars of Schoenberg's De Profundis and Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms, a chorale of austere strength in the certainty of God's promise.

I might as well get my annoyances with this disc out of the way first. Naxos has provided no texts, and given Penderecki's rather large forces, nobody's diction can sufficiently cut through to complete intelligibility. These works' expressive power derives in large part from the texts. Naxos gives you a URL, but those web pages are woefully incomplete: none of the Dies irae texts, and the psalms in Latin, when the chorus is obviously singing in Polish. I can understand why Naxos hasn't provided the Polish, but why not English, French, and German? Fortunately, I know enough Latin, acquired through a superior public-school education when the phrase wasn't oxymoronic.

On the other hand, the performers are quite fine, with baritone Wojtek Drabowicz outstanding. Drabowicz died in an auto accident about a year after this recording. Had he lived, he would have likely broken into the ranks of opera superstars. He had a powerful, ringing tone which sacrificed none of his darker color for brightness, and there seemed to be no barriers as his expressiveness shot straight into the listener. He was a fine declaimer of poetry. I've always thought Antoni Wit deserved a wider career. He performs minor miracles of musical perspicuity in the Eighth and keeps the musical matter from melting entirely into formless goo. He almost, but not quite, convinces me that the symphony is worth a second listen. The Dies irae and the Psalms, much finer pieces, receive first-class readings. It's difficult for me to imagine that someone will do better any time soon, and at Naxos's price, this becomes an unbelievable bargain.

S.G.S. (January 2009)