Sublime Polish melodies @ Royal Festival Hall

To the Royal Festival Hall for one of the 12 landmark concerts they’ve scheduled as part of the Rest Is Noise festival, two major pieces by post-war Polish composers, the evening package marketed as Sublime Polish melodies.

Pieces
Krzysztof Penderecki: Violin Concerto No.1
—Interval—
Henryk Górecki: Symphony No.3 (Symphony of Sorrowful Songs), Op.36

Performers
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Michal Dworzynski conductor
Barnabas Kelemen violin
Allison Bell soprano

Questions and Answers
The pre-concert conversation with conductor Michal Dworzynski was interesting:

  • Were the three great post-war Polish composers – Gorecki, Penderecki, Lutoslawski – part of movement, a generation, a common voice? No.
  • Was there a conscious reaction against the avant-garde, against Darmstadt Modernism, sometime in the mid 1970s? Not conscious, no.
  • So why did their styles change so strikingly, especially Penderecki, from the intense modernism of the famous Threnody? Dworzynski thinks it happened when Penderecki started conducting and realised how difficult the music he’d been composing was to actually play. (I question this, as I saw Pendercki himself conducting the Threnody last year and it was blisteringly together.)
  • Why is Gorecki’s 3rd Symphony so popular (it is the bestselling classical CD of all time)? Like everyone else Dworzynski  replies that, in our hectic times, it speaks of peace and serenity. Maybe: but I think it is also a piece of contemporary classical music you can listen to without hurting your ears. it is extremely easy to listen to, as Classic FM knew when they chose to launch their radio station with it.
  • Is Penderecki’s Violin concerto a return to Romanticism? In respect of the long lines of melody, maybe, but it is also very intense and fiendishly difficult for soloist and orchestra to play.

Review
I found the violin concerto stunningly old-fashioned, lots of effects throughout reminding me of Shostakovitch, with glimpses of Mahlerian lushness. Certainly it is in a harmonic, key-based language which throws back to the start of the 20th century. Sure there are spooky modernist glissandos but not many and nowhere near as dominating and bewildering as the effects in Gulbaidulina’s violin concerto (Offertorium). A quaffable half hour but there did seem to be the same idea of starting at the bottom of a scale and staggering up it, repeated many times. But it also seemed to be a deliberate tour around the orchestra trying out different sounds and sonorities. And the steady doom-doom-doom of the drums and percussion gave it a very accessible pulse.

Maybe the Symphony of Sorrowful Songs is hard to do live but: it seemed to me the double basses which start it, deep down and mournful, were out of tune; the soloist Allison Bell lacked Dawn Upshaw’s smoothness (maybe that’s partly attributable to the sound recordists on the famous CD): and rather than lulling and inspiring, I found Dworzynski’s pacing of the insistent repetitive chords (variations on A, I believe) in the final section, as monotonous and eventually as headachey as a less successful Steve Reich piece. Instead of waves on the shore, the orchestra went quiet enough between pulses that each insistent chord seemed more like the throbbing of a headache.

Violin by MATANAO (Wikimedia Commons)

Violin by MATANAO (Wikimedia Commons)

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