• (1999) Penderecki: Symphony no.5

Krzysztof Penderecki: Cello Concerto no.2
programme note written for
London Symphony Orchestra
London, 24 October 1999

Although Penderecki had used traditional titles from the mid-1960s for his concertante pieces for soloist and orchestra, his purely orchestral pieces mostly had quasi-descriptive titles, ranging from Emanations (1958) and Anaklasis (1960) to two works entitled De natura sonoris (1966, 1971).  So it perhaps came as a surprise that, when Perkins Engines in Peterborough commissioned a new work (how many industrial companies have made such a bold move in the last 25 years?), Penderecki should turn to the archetypal orchestal genre of the symphony.  In fact, the First Symphony (1973) is usually regarded as a summation of Penderecki’s orchestral thinking up to that date, and it turned out to mark the end of his experimental era.  The next year, in The Awakening of Jacob, there are already strong intimations of his surprise shift of attention towards the past which was heralded in 1976 by the First Violin Concerto.

Penderecki’s Second Symphony (1980), subtitled ‘Christmas’ because it quotes the carol ‘Stille Nacht’, underlined this shift and, if anything, is more strongly 19th-century in idiom, with Bruckner being a fairly direct linguistic ancestor.  Like many of his other orchestral works of the 1980s and 1990s, it is a multi-sectioned, single movement work, whose internal structures are articulated primarily by alternating fast and slow tempi and contrasts of orchestration and rhythmic figuration.  Between the Third Symphony, which was completed by the addition of a highly Mahlerian Adagio only in 1995, and the Fifth (1992), Penderecki wrote no.4 (1989), an extended orchestral Adagio in which there are strong narrative traces.

The Fifth Symphony, receiving its British premiere tonight, draws on its predecessors in terms of language, gesture and structure.  It is cast as a single movement lasting about 35 minutes and was commissioned for performance in South Korea, where Penderecki conducted the premiere in Seoul on 14 August 1992.  Its slow introduction again places its trust in simple materials – a pedal point on F and a tritonal axis with B natural, overlapping chromatic scales, a sequential theme with rising major sixths, stentorian brass chords.  And whereas Bruckner may inform previous works, it is the spirit of Liszt which seems to haunt Penderecki here.  As in many of his other slow opening sections, the composer seems preoccupied with doom-laden apprehension, something which he explored more explicitly in his choral and operatic works.

The main body of the symphony is a sequence of interlocked fast and slow sections.  The first of the fast sections opens with a prolonged theme for the violas, which serves as material for subsequent fugatos (another characteristic trait).  The textures are predominantly two-part, with an element of the grotesque and use of woodwind which draws on the idiom of one of Russia’s great 20th-century symphonists, Shostakovich.  This section begins to subside before its material has been fully explored, and there follows a return to the slow material plus an intermittent passacaglia which is introduced on low strings.  Its artless four-bar theme, using only the notes B flat, F and C, is based on a Korean folksong.

The second fast section introduces a scurrying chromatic triplet figuration, whose roulades develop into a quasi-Scherzo of enormous orchestral energy.  Once again, Penderecki cuts it short in mid-flow, reinforcing the impression that his particular grasp of symphonic drama is built on fractured narratives.  There follows a dislocated Tempo di marcia in which references to the Mahlerian symphonic tradition are deconstructed rather than ironic.  Penderecki also draws attention to his predecessor (and, in passing, to Shostakovich) through the instrumentation, which highlights the solo clarinet, brass and percussion.  In the larger scheme of things, however, this Mahlerian cross-reference acts as an isolated episode.

The remaining sections of the symphony recall and explore the essential features of the main ideas, including the Korean folksong passacaglia, their contrasts of tempo and figuration serving to deepen the sense of inner turbulence, which is only partly resolved by the driving coda.  Once again, Penderecki grabs attention through his reiterative explorations of basic chromatic ideas, through opposites of orchestral colour and density, and through his sure sense of drama.

‘Search for order and harmony is associated with the feeling of collapse and apocalypses.  The external world often invades brutally my internal life.  …  I am very glad to turn to a pure musical form not contaminated by externality.  I wander and roam entering my symbolic labyrinth.  Only a roundabout way may lead you to fulfilment.  I have also built a labyrinth in my garden in Lusławice.  And I feel safe in it.  …  And here in Lusławice my most favourable music is created: symphonies taking years to write and chamber music, or my musica domestica.  I escape here into intimacy, the world close to silence.  And it seems to me that I am getting close to the essence of music.’
(from Penderecki’s foreword to an exhibition of his sketches, Kraków, 1998).

© 1999 Adrian Thomas


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