PENDERECKI:  Concerto for Violin and Orchestra  No. 1.  "Metamorphosen" Concerto for Violin and Orchestra No. 2.
Konstanty Kulka; Chee-Yun, violinists; Polish National Radio Symphony Orch/Antoni Wit, cond.
NAXOS 8.555265 (B) (DDD) TT: 77:32

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)