PENDERECKI:  St. Luke Passion
Franziska Hirzel, sop/Francois Le Roux, baritone/Jean-Philippe Courtis, bass/Mainzer Dom and Norddeutschen Rundfunks Choruses/Orchester dr Beethovenhalle/Marc Soustrot, cond.

MDG 337 0981 (F) (DDD) TT:  69:57

There are those memorable moments when, after experiencing a live performance of an unknown work for the first time, you are swept away by the experience and are never quite the same since. Such was this reviewer's reaction after hearing Krzysztof Penderecki conduct his monumental St. Luke Passion (1966), arguably the greatest choral work along with Benjamin Britten's War Requiem (1962) composed in the second half of the 20th Century. .

To define "greatness" is admittedly a daunting task when balancing the objective with the subjective. On second thought, neither balancing nor defining has anything to do with the work's powerful dramatic impact which is achieved by a convincing marriage of text, sounds, and music. Or, to put it another way, Penderecki has composed a score the encompasses and projects the physical and emotional ordeals of Christ's suffering and passion in a vocabulary that synthesizes and enhances the drama of that historical event. This superb recording on MDG captures the intensity vividly.

Rather than dissect every phrase a la a musicalogical essay, an easier way to become totally immersed in Penderecki's drama is to highlight some basic techniques which, after many reappearances and variation, propel the drama. A unison drone in the bass may suddenly explode into a shouted tone cluster. A whispered "miserere nobis" can give way to a frenzied high soprano lament as in the powerful "crux fidelis" The large orchestra can pound in the nails or whisper a simple prayer with equal force.

The chorus , as in the Bach passions, plays a major role in the drama as the shouting , screaming mob. Random sounds often compete with sudden inserts of actual notes —a Penderecki special technique.

With this emphasis on sound and texture, there are places for melody especially in the brass and soprano . Admittedly, the melodic line may be angular and atonal. But it always makes itself known.

One departure from the Bach, in which the Evangelist (a tenor) tells the story in recitative, has the narration spoken by the famed singer-turned speaker, Manfred Jung. The other featured soloists are first-rate—soprano Franziska Hirzel, baritone Francois Le Roux, and bass Jean-Philippe Courtis. Also noteworthy are the excellent choirs of Norddeutschen Rundfunks and Mainzer Dom along with the fine Orchester der Beethovenhalle Bonn under the defining direction of Marc Soustrot.

K.S. (April 2000)