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Penderecki in Canterbury

19 May 2009

Roderic Dunnett on the St Luke Passion


ONE of the bolder enterprises to spring up in recent years has been the Sounds New! Festival, which takes place in Canterbury. This year, when it is 20 years since Poland finally escaped the yoke of com­munism, this inventive festival had a special emphasis on Polish con­temporary composers.

Workshops, study days, and lectures provided an opportunity to introduce singers, musicians, and amateur music-makers to a range of bracing Polish repertoire, including Lukaszewski, Szymanski, Krauze, and others, set alongside such English works as Joe Cutler’s witty catalogue Rough Guide to Poland and Stephen Montague’s aching memory of a visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau, Chorale for the Cauldrons of Hell.

The festival’s most impressive coup was to secure a magnificent live performance in England of the St Luke Passion by the doyen of modern Polish composers, Krzysztof Penderecki, performed by Polish soloists with the Warsaw Boys’ Choir (who offered a striking programme of new work earlier in the week, alongside the Canterbury Cathedral Youth Chorus), the Polish Radio Choir from Krakow, the Ensemble Silesia from Katowice, and the superb Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra under the composer’s direction.

Happily, Bach has his heirs: significant composers who have essayed settings of the Passion texts with striking results — not just Penderecki, but the German Wolf­gang Rihm (Deus Passus, superbly recorded on Hänssler Classics 98397), the Russian Zofia Gubai­dulina (Johannes-Passion and Johannes-Ostern), the Argentinian Osvaldo Golijov (La Pasión según San Marcos), the Chinese-American Tan Dun (Water Passion after St Matthew), and our own James MacMillan (St John Passion), as well as several Scandinavian composers.

Penderecki’s St Luke Passion is arguably, in dimensional terms, Poland’s 1960s answer to Igor Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms and Oedipus Rex, but especially to Britten’s War Requiem, composed a few years earlier.

A sacred choral work of massive proportions and wide textural variety, using a Latin text and three vocal soloists, plus a narrator (Evangelist), it wraps the Gospel narration around other textual material — not, here, poems by Wilfrid Owen, but compressed extracts from the Psalms (5, 9, 14, 15, 22, and 55) and the book of Jeremiah, and also Jesus’s exchange from the cross with Mary and John (John 19).

It seems a testament to the strength of Polish Catholicism that this work should have been written when the increasingly intransigent Gomulka regime still governed Poland, Karol Wojty³a had just become Archbishop of Cracow, and the Solidarity trade union was still unheard of.

For some, the eclectic Penderecki once suffered, like Hans Werner Henze, from being seen as stylistically not modern enough by the youthful avant-garde. Yet, as with Lutoslawski, his elder contemporary, there is a richness of innovation, allusion, historical awareness, diversity, and directness in his wide-ranging approach, which makes a forceful and recognisably personal impact.

Here the clustering choir chords and dazzling outbursts, and the appeals of Christ (the baritone Adam Kruszewski) in the garden of Gethsemane (“Deus meus . . .”), rising to an anguished falsetto, yet remaining leaden and unavailing, and the recurrent laments for Jerusalem made a profound impact in the ample Canterbury acoustic. The narration, part spoken and part intoned, had unusual dramatic impact, being sung from the pulpit by Boris Carmeli. Each time the Warsaw boys joined the impressive massed adult choirs, they brought an added plangency and finesse to the textures.

The prize-winning soprano Iwona Hossa is one of Poland’s outstanding younger generation vocal soloists. Her “Domine, quis habitat . . .?” (“Lord, who shall dwell . . . ?”), anticipated by panicky woodwind and brass, seemed akin in spirit to Britten’s aching Lacrymosa in the War Requiem. Alto flute supplied a melting obbligato for her later “Crux fidelis”; and bass clarinet sustained the tragic, self-justifying denials of the bass Peter (yet more forcefully sung by Piotr Nowacki). At times, by contrast, the composer’s Gospel setting reduces the textures to an almost Schütz-like bare minimum, to intense effect, as at “Com­prehendentes autem eum” and the later “In pulverem mortis”.

The dazzling explosion of skit­tering strings (“et viri, qui tenebant illum”) suggested that the veil of the temple was already being rent; while an orchestral passacaglia just before the close, where the composer finally unifies his solo trio, seemed ingeni­ously placed. The sheer majesty of this Canterbury performance under the composer’s baton guaranteed this to be one of the great sacred choral events of the year.

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