Penderecki Symphony No. 8Krzysztof Penderecki

Symphony No. 8

Naxos Records

Symphony No. 8 ‘Lieder der Vergí¤nglichkeit’, Dies irae, Aus den Psalmen Davids Warsaw National Philharmonic Choir, Warsaw National Philharmonic Orchestra, Antoni Wit, conductor

Just to get all prejudices out in the open, I prefer the earlier coloristic works of Penderecki to the more recent and more conservative symphonies. I fully expected to pop in the Symphony No. 8 (from 2005) and think that Bartok threw away better music. I’m sorry, I try to be tabula rasa regarding reviews, but I can’t help myself sometimes.

Here is the thing: I like the symphony. It functions more as an orchestral song cycle than a symphony, (thank you Das Lied von der Erde!) and is the most compelling synthesis of the “wiggedy-weird” experimental colorist and the neo-romantic symphonist that I have heard. At first, you might think that this was a long lost Berg cycle. As the twelve songs travel by, though, you hear orchestral colorings that make the ears perk up and really listen to what is going on. Very effective stuff.

In contrast, the Dies irae from 1967 sounds dated to me. The gestures and colors aren’t as compelling as some of the other Penderecki works from this time. In many ways, this disc helped me rectify the journey and progression of Penderecki as a composer. Many of the timbral and gestural ideas in Dies irae fall flat or are generally not compelling. I can’t help but be put in Penderecki’s place as a composer and start to think “this style isn’t working for me anymore, I need something else.” Hearing the masterful orchestration and lyrical writing of Symphony No. 8 highlights how Penderecki synthesized his previous experiences into an individual style.

Aus den Psalmen Davids, coming from 1958, stands on the opposite end of the timeline. Here I find the musical ideas and colors more convincing and captivating. The a cappella settings of Psalm 30 and 143 are achingly beautiful (143 has some accompaniment, but not much). The colors swirl, the emotions gush forth, driving percussion and spiky pianos chug along. In many ways, I think this is a Penderecki disc for everyone. Those who love the neo-romantic Penderecki will adore the Symphony No. 8. Those who love the earlier experimental Penderecki will dig the Aus den Psalmen Davids. Both camps may or may not like the Dies irae, which makes it a good central piece on the disc. No matter which Penderecki you like, you will find stuff to enjoy on this disc.

It usually goes without saying that Antoni Wit and the Warsaw National Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir give powerful and definitive performances whenever they perform, but I say it here anyway. Their interpretations and offerings of Penderecki (and the earlier Lutoslawski series) are truly exceptional performances.

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