Sunday, February 23, 2014

Penderecki's "Polish Requiem" performed by the IPO, conducted by the composer

Krzysztof Penderecki (photo:Pierre-Jean Tribot)
An auspicious event of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra’s 2013-2014 concert season was

Kryzsztof Penderecki’s “Polish Requiem”, conducted by the composer himself. Joining the IPO were the Gary Bertini Israeli Choir (musical director and conductor: Ronen Borshevsky), the Jerusalem Academy of Music Chamber Choir (musical director and conductor: Stanley Sperber) and soloists soprano Melanie Diener (Germany) and Polish artists - mezzo-soprano Agnieszka Rehlis, tenor Rafal Bartminski and bass Robert Jesierski. This writer attended the performance taking place on February 17th 2014 at the Jerusalem International Convention Center.

Born in Poland in 1933, Penderecki has written some forty orchestral works – symphonies and small-scale orchestral compositions – solo concertos, chamber music, vocal works, operas and film scores. His sacred works have established him as one of today’s most important composers of the genre. Penderecki is a Catholic, but his personal background explains where his sacred music comes from. In an interview with Monika Skarzinska for DW Magazine in 2013, he explained that he had been “a very religious child. My grandfather was German and a Protestant. My father, a lawyer, was Greek Catholic…My mother was very religious and went to church twice a day. My grandmother was Armenian…I was raised with three different faiths – that’s why I am so open…” Before putting pen to paper, Penderecki took ten years to think through the concept of his Polish Requiem. Then, much in the manner J.S.Bach’s Mass in B minor was written, the sections of the Requiem were added over several years, with most of the individual sections premiered separately from 1980 to 1984. The “Sanctus” was added in 1993. Dedicated to his country’s suffering, the “Polish Requiem” was written during the difficult period of martial law; reading into the work, one is aware of the composer’s specific position. Dedications in the Requiem are of two kinds: those commemorating important events in Polish history and those singling out people whose actions for their country have been laudable. The “Lacrimosa”, commissioned by Lech Walęsa, is dedicated to the victims of December 1970, the a-cappella “Agnes Dei” was written in 1981 on the death of Cardinal Wyszynski and sung at his funeral, the “Dies Irae” commemorates the 40th anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising and Polish resistance to Nazi Germany, with the “Recordare” dedicated to the memory of Father Maximilian Kolbe (the Polish priest who gave his own life for that of another prisoner in Auschwitz in 1941) and the “Libera Me, Domine” remembers the victims of Katyn. Penderecki has introduced an excerpt from a Polish supplication “Święty Boże, Święty Mocny” (Holy God, Holy and strong), a prayer sung in moments of danger, this constituting an element both personal and patriotic; it is over-layered with the solo singing of “Recordare Jesu pie”.

Seated in the auditorium of the Jerusalem International Convention Center to hear this monumental work, one was gripped by its powerful aura of reverence, sublimity and destiny. The choirs and IPO players played out its neo-Romantic style and its microtonal passages (the latter, nevertheless, removed from his earlier provocative and controversial writing), both bewitching and entrancing to the ear as the composer’s timbral textures allow the music a sense of being suspended, hovering above reality. Densely clustered harmonies provide immediacy and depth to the text. Penderecki’s conducting mostly hinged on the beat; the choirs, however, well conversant with the fine details of the text, created its large canvas with involvement, intensity, expression and with a vivid palette of vocal color. Each of the four solo singers, all of whom were appearing with the IPO for the first time, was impressive, contending well with an orchestra as massive as the extended IPO. They shared a common approach that was comfortable, direct, reverent, unmannered and well connected to each gesture of the text. The IPO is the right orchestra for Penderecki’s “Polish Requiem”; uncompromising in its accuracy and splendid quality of sound in all sections, the orchestra presented the Requiem’s instrumental solos with captivating beauty, its tutti with convincing grandeur and humility. Grave and austere, with powerful and intense moments, several movements of Penderecki’s “Polish Requiem” conclude with the haunting sound of the chimes – the death knell. The composer has referred to the work as being “frighteningly expressive and emotional but also melodic and accessible”. Speaking not only of its depiction of the complicated destiny of his nation, but also about universally human values like courage, selflessness and faith, Penderecki said “I consider it a very special piece. I always empathize with its performance”. Attending the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra’s performance of the work was a moving, thought-provoking and humbling experience.

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