Penderecki: Orchestral Works, Vol. 2: Symphony No. 1; Symphony No. 5; Vol. 3: SSymphony No. 2 (Christmas); Symphony No. 4

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COMPOSERS: Penderecki
LABELS: Naxos
WORKS: Orchestral Works, Vol. 2: Symphony No. 1; Symphony No. 5; Vol. 3: SSymphony No. 2 (Christmas); Symphony No. 4
PERFORMER: Polish National RSO, Katowice/Antoni Wit
CATALOGUE NO: 8.554567, 8.554492
Penderecki’s star has never burnt too brightly over British shores. Readers may need reminding that having shocked the world with the sonic experiments of his avant-garde Sixties [see Choral & Song], the composer adopted a neo-Romantic idiom in his First Violin Concerto (1977) and Second Christmas Symphony (1980), thereafter gaining attention for timely nationalistic pieces like the Polish Requiem (1984) and operas exploring expressionistic themes. He is a composer who writes on the largest scale and commands appropriate commissions, yet the catalogue contains a mere handful of his symphonic works: the First Symphony (1973) in the composer’s benchmark recording, still fresh after nearly 30 years, and the Second and Fourth Symphonies, also captured under his baton, and no less valid.

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The arrival of this new cycle is therefore cause for re-evaluation, not only for the opportunity to hear these pieces afresh, but also for the chance to discover the Fifth Symphony. This work incongruously incorporates a Korean folksong (it was premiered in Seoul in 1992), but is a tightly argued score that leaves an impression of genuine musical dialectic. So too does the Christmas Symphony, more generously endowed thematically than its peers, and receiving from Antoni Wit a reading that makes a genuine alternative to the composer’s.

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Overall, this cycle makes an important addition to the catalogue, though the rather dry Naxos sound is at times an inappropriate medium for Penderecki’s battleship-grey scoring, which, despite the presence of woodwind, and paradoxically for such a past master of sheer sonority, seems painted throughout in tones of strings and brass. Nicholas Williams