Thursday, 15 October 2015

Penderecki conducts Penderecki, London Philharmonic Orchestra

It's always good when a composer conducts his own music, so when Krzysztof Penderecki conducted the London Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Festival Halll, it was an occasion.  In 1992, Witold Lutosławski conducted his then new Symphony no 3 (at the Newbury Festival, when that was cutting edge). I've regretted missing it ever since. Penderecki is no stranger in this country, where he's conducted mainly his own works many times, including at the Proms. But never take composers doing their own music for granted, even though sometimes the perspective of a conductor who feels less subjectively can be a good thing.

At 83, Penderecki is looking more magnificent than ever, much more striking than he did as a younger man.  He's so handsome in white tie and tails that  he looked like a quintessential maestro from central casting. Indeed, he looks even  more magisterial than he did when he was younger. "He looks like someone from the 19th century suddenly materialized" said a friend.  Penderecki's conducting style is unusual, his left hand striking repeating gestures marking the pulse, while the right remains largely immobile.  Perhaps he's left-handed ?

Penderecki's Adagio for Strings (2013), received its London premiere.  If it sounded familiar, it was. It's a transcription from the third movement, of  the composer's Third Symphony (1995). Penderecki has famously declared that musical innovation stopped in the 1970's so by that judgement, the Adagio might be third generation reiteration of sorts, pleasantly played, though, by the London Philharmonic Orchestra.

Penderecki's Concerto for Hiorn and Orchestra "Winterreise", from 2008, also received its UK premiere.  The composer says that the piece has nothing to do with Schubert,despite the title. But why the title in the first place? Schubert's Winterreise is a study in alienation long before the concept was verbalized. Penderecki's concerto is a fairly straightforward concerto where soloist interacts with orchestra in much the way Schubert's protagonist interacts with Nature, while claiming to think only of himself. The horn is an instrument created to lead, in marches, in hunts and in fanfares.  I don't think you can be a horn players and a shrinking violet. The soloist, Radovan Vlatkovic, played with distinctive personality, engaging interest and revealing the many interesting figures along the journey.  The piece was written for him, and he makes it come alive.


Penderecki's Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima (1960) is the composer's "greatest hit". On one level, the whirring high-pitched strings scream like manic machines, suggesting the moment the atom bomb whizzed from the skies and destroyed hundreds of thousands of lives. In that sense, the piece sounds vaguely like Masao Ohki's Hiroshima Symphony (read more here)  However, Penderecki's piece was conceived as an abstract study of pitch and layering, the title added later. It's intense because the concept is strong, simple yet effective, its impact (sorry wrong choice of word) enhanced by the way audiences respond to the perceived subject.  It would make a good  introduction to, say,  Xenakis  Pithoprakta (1955), showing audiences that modern music isn't necessarily difficult or forbidding. There is far too much ill-informed cliché written about 20th century  music.

The concert concluded with Shostakovich Symphony no 6 Op 54 (1939).reminding us that Penderecki has a reputation for conducting Shostakovich.  Again, the LPO played with great refinement. This week, Gergiev conducted the London Symphony Orchestra as its chief, for the last time, though hopefully he will still Guest. What would Gergiev, on a good day, have made of its wicked, ironic humour? I'm glad I heard Penderecki conduct again, but I think I'll now go listen to Lutosławski.

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