March 06, 2008


Penderecki: Symphony No. 8, “Lieder der Vergänglichkeit”; Dies irae; Aus den Psalmen Davids. Michaela Kaune, soprano; Agnieszka Rehlis, mezzo-soprano; Wojtek Drabowicz, baritone (Symphony); Anna Lubańska, mezzo-soprano; Ryszard Minkiewicz, tenor; Jaroslàw Bręk, bass-baritone (Dies irae); Warsaw National Philharmonic Choir and Warsaw National Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Antoni Wit. Naxos. $8.99.

Shostakovich: Odna (Alone)—Complete Score for the 1929-1931 Sound/Silent Film. Irina Mataeva, soprano; Anna Kiknadze, mezzo-soprano; Dmitry Voropaev, tenor; Mark van Tongeren, overtone singer; Barbara Buchholz, theremin; Vokalensemble der HfMDK Frankfurt and Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Mark Fitz-Gerald. Naxos. $8.99.

      Music does not require operatic staging to engage the audience’s sense of sight as well as its sense of sound. Some compositions encourage the audience to see with the mind’s eye – which can bring greater clarity than a staged production. Krzysztof Penderecki’s Symphony No. 8 invites visions of the way things change – not only through its title (Vergänglichkeit can be translated “transition” or “transitoriness”) but also through the subject matter of its 12 movements. Vocally, the movements are cleverly arranged: the first for mezzo-soprano and chorus, the second for chorus alone, Nos. 3-5 for baritone, the sixth for chorus, Nos. 7-9 for soprano and chorus, the 10th for chorus, the penultimate for baritone, and the final and longest movement for all three soloists plus chorus. The texts that Penderecki sets are from poets born as early as Goethe (1749) and as late as Hermann Hesse (1877). All deal with forms of change in the natural world and, by implication, in human lives. The three chorus-only movements are settings of the three stanzas of a poem about autumn – a season of distinct change – by Rainer Maria Rilke. Other poems look at nature’s renewal, the inevitability of death, and the longed-for rebirth of nature (and perhaps of the human soul). The subject matter is Mahlerian, and so is some of the orchestral feeling, although Penderecki’s unique textural touches, notably in percussion, are very much in evidence. Interestingly, the work’s major climax, in the finale, sounds a bit like the music of Carl Orff – big and jangling and very percussive indeed. Yet this symphony, written in 2005, is noticeably stamped with Penderecki’s personal touches, including the use of a bass trumpet, an intense fugal passage for strings, the use of bells, and the vocal settings. This is an effective and affecting work – although it does help to have texts in German and English in front of you when listening (Naxos makes them available online).

      Texts are not made available for the other two Penderecki works on this CD, both of which are considerably earlier: Dies irae dates to 1967 and Aus den Psalmen Davids to 1958. Dies irae was written for the unveiling of a monument at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, and the scenes evoked by its cries of anguish and wails of lamentation are quite easily pictured even without knowing the poetry that the soloists and chorus are singing – drawn from Polish poets, Aeschylus and the Book of Revelation, among other sources. There is less that is visual in Aus den Psalmen Davids, a brief work for chorus and orchestra that was one of Penderecki’s first important pieces. The text uses parts of four psalms; combined with dissonances, strong rhythms and some polyphony, the work creates a mood and sound-picture mixing restraint and defiance. All the performers seem thoroughly at home in all these Penderecki works, and Antoni Wit leads them with great strength and rhythmic drive.

      The visual impact of the music for Shostakovich’s Odna (Alone) is of a different sort, being tied directly to an early sound film that was actually shot in part as a silent movie. The film’s plot and the music accompanying it are emphatically of the “socialist realism” school. The movie is about a young teacher who tries to bring modern Soviet methods to a distant backwater of the Soviet Union, only to be thwarted and almost killed by resentful and resistant villagers representing the old ways (while being loved and supported by the children she teaches, who represent the future). At the end, the benevolent Soviet state somehow realizes her plight and rescues her by airplane. Shostakovich’s music is tied tightly to the film’s scenes, leading to a great deal of repetition and a fair number of rather boring pieces; however, there is enough of interest here to give the CD a (+++) rating. The movie’s early scenes in Leningrad (St. Petersburg) inspired a short and brilliant march called “The Street” and a bright and breezy galop that leads into a song (repeated several times during the film) called “How Good Life Will Be.” The contrast between the bustling life of Leningrad’s citizens and the huge emptiness of the steppes to which the teacher comes is effectively portrayed in the music – for example, Shostakovich calls for a barrel-organ for some city music, then has an overtone singer (whose wordless, oddly produced sounds are highly exotic) introduce the first scene on the steppes. The use of a theremin – an early electronic instrument that is played without being touched – gives a scene of an approaching blizzard a touch of eeriness as well as power. And some of the contrasts between the music of the stolid village leader and the bright young teacher are effective. Mark Fitz-Gerald, who reconstructed the film score, conducts it with enthusiasm, but Odna remains a period piece, its music more a curiosity than an important part of Shostakovich’s work.

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