On record – Penderecki: Horn Concerto, Adagio, Violin Concerto no.1, Threnody (LPO)

Radovan Vlatković (horn); Barnabás Kelemen (violin), London Philharmonic Orchestra / Krzysztof Penderecki (Horn Concerto, Adagio, Threnody), Michał Dworzyński (Violin Concerto no.1)

Horn Concerto ‘Winterreise’ (2008)
Adagio for Strings (1995/2013)
Violin Concerto no.1 (1977)
Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima (1960)c)

London Philharmonic Orchestra LPO0116 [78’32”]

Producers Nicholas Parker(Horn Concerto, Adagio, Threnody), Matthew Dilley (Violin Concerto no.1)
Engineer Mike Hatch (Horn Concerto, Adagio, Threnody), Richard Bland (Violin Concerto no.1)

Recorded 27 November 2013 (Horn COncerto, Adagio, Threnody), 14 October 2015 (Violin Concerto no.1), Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, London

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Although this release on the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s in-house label was clearly not intended as a commemorative issue, the death of Krzysztof Penderecki on 29th March (at the age of 87) makes it such – not least as its content ranges across almost 50 years of his output.

What’s the music like?

The Horn Concerto is wholly representative of Penderecki’s latter-day music, with its subtitle Winterreise indicative of the evocative soundscape through which the soloist ventures. The composer has said that Schubert’s eponymous masterwork had no influence on his piece, yet its presence often feels hard to ignore – not least at the very opening when, over glacial lower strings, brass then woodwind set up an arresting backdrop for the soloist’s initial appearance. From this point on the music alternates between animated dialogue, frequently with a martial undertow from wind and percussion, and sombre soliloquy with strings to the fore. The terse coda wraps up matters in fatefully decisive terms. As might be expected of one who gave the premiere, Radovan Vlatković is finely attuned to this work’s often disjunctive mood-swings.

Of the shorter pieces, the Adagio is a transcription for strings of the central (third) movement from Penderecki’s Third Symphony – so giving a new lease of life to music whose pathos is accentuated by evocative soloistic writing. It was Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima that brought Penderecki to international attention and if its claims to embody emotional extremis have been exaggerated (not least by the composer), the calculated impact of those dynamic and textural contrasts still brooks no compromise – at least when assessed on its own terms.

In concert, these pieces were heard either side of the Horn Concerto; here, they frame a rather more significant piece. When it appeared, the First Violin Concerto felt intent on confirming Penderecki’s renouncing of avant-garde credentials in favour of the neo-Romantic idiom that, with modifications, he pursued thereafter. Rehearing the work points up just how much of his earlier language was retained. The concerto unfolds as a single movement in which a sonata-form outline is expanded by interpolating slow movement and scherzo, for all that the overall tempo is predominantly slow. Barnabás Kelemen integrates the solo part into the orchestra to a degree that is formally and expressively cohesive, the finesse and eloquence of his playing confirmed by a lengthy cadenza that encapsulate thematic content prior to the sombre coda.

Does it all work?

Yes, so long as one accepts that Penderecki is a composer liable to repeat himself within and between works. His conducting is dependable without being overly insightful, while Michał Dworzyński draws a tensile and alert response from the London Philharmonic as to reinforce the sense that the First Violin Concerto is ready for re-evaluation. That Penderecki arguably spent the intervening decades trying and largely failing to achieve a comparable formal and expressive synthesis has not lessened its importance in the context of music from this period.

Is it recommended?

Yes, given the (relative) stylistic range of the works featured and, moreover, the excellence of the LPO’s playing. Those interested should acquire it primarily for the First Violin Concerto which, among Penderecki’s larger orchestral works, seems likely to prove the most enduring.


You can listen to clips from the recording and purchase, either in physical or digital form, at the London Philharmonic Orchestra website

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