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Posted October 1, 2010
There's not much you can say about Poland's Krzysztof Penderecki that hasn't been said before. One of the towering figures of modern classical music, his profound and complex compositions seem to channel all the angst and suffering of the 20th century, yet their darkness is invariably balanced a sense of hopefulness. This is especially true of his choral compositions. Reason enough to celebrate this Naxos box set featuring a quartet of Penderecki's seminal vocal works for choir and orchestra. Probably the best known is his "Polish Requiem," written in stages over a number of years and dedicated variously to Lech Walesa and Solidarity, a pair of notable Polish religious figures, and the 1944 Warsaw uprising against the Nazi occupation. Written for a large orchestra and mixed chorus, the Requiem, while challenging, is reflective of Penderecki's neo-romantic period, when he began to curb his experimental tendencies in favor of a more accessible musical language. It's a melodically elaborate, at times overpowering work balanced between the emotional tonalities of nightmares and dreams. "St. Luke's Passion" was written between 1963 and 1966, and is much more radical in its use of serial techniques and dense tone clusters, yet the vocal lines clearly communicate the work's religious fervor. "Te Deum" deftly combines eerie and austere vocal passages with angular strings and ominous percussion, which at times evokes a stunning sense of post-apocalyptic despair. Fans of Kubrick's "The Shining" will recognize certain passages from Penderecki's "Utrenja," a brooding two-part work awash in melodic and harmonic atonality and savage choral passages. Also included (consider it a bonus) is the composer's "Polymorphia," one of his most extreme and rewarding orchestral pieces. All the works in this set benefit from superb performances by the Warsaw National Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir under the baton of Antoni Wit. The recordings are also excellent, full of clarity, warmth and spaciousness. While the bulk of this music is steeped in darkness, it also projects a luminous spirituality that one can interpret from either a religious or secular perspective. The ridiculously low price of this five-CD set makes it the classical music bargain of the year. Add it to your classical music collection immediately.
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