Review Summary: This 1966 composition is one of the most impressive avant-garde statements of intent this reviewer has ever come across.
I've been doing a lot of reading around Penderecki recently, and one word that cropped up was 'pyrotechnic'. I think that's fitting. Krzysztof Penderecki was one of a handful of composers - Iannis Xenakis and Gyorgy Ligeti among them - who tore at the cold complexity of serialism with works that were emotional in the extreme - gutteral, anguished, often terrifying. Xenakis' "Metastatis", Ligeti's "Lux Aeterna", and Penderecki's "Threnody For The Victims of Hiroshima" are arguably the big three works when considering pieces that combine avant-garde experimentalism with raw emotional expression. 'Pyrotechnic' is so fitting because Penderecki's work from this era was so immediately powerful and overwhelming, and though it arguably lacked depth, the impact is such that he's arguably infiltrated popular culture more than any other truly avant-garde composer. Just ask Bloc Party, Scott Walker, and Manic Street Preachers.
St. Luke Passion
- or, to give it a full title, Passio Et Mors Domini Nostri Jesu Christi Secundum Lacum
, continues in a similar vein. This is a pyrotechnic work is a lot of senses. For one thing, it's absolutely massive in scope. The orchestra is augmented with a chorus, 4 soloists, a speaker, saxophones, and a massive percussion section that takes in Chinese and Javanese gongs, tom-toms, and bass drums. Moreover, the piece draws Gregorian chant, serialism, and major choral sections (opening and closing the piece) into its repertoire. The libretto extends the original Passion to include some hymns, psalms,
JS Bach is noted as an influence, and you can justify that - the structure of the piece follows the structure of Bach's own Passions, not to mention that Penderecki uses the BACH tone row - but ultimately this sounds nothing like the Preludes & Fugues. This work is monolithic in every sense - it's dark, dense, often impenetrable, and of course, experimental. The chorus is, at various times, asked to chatter incessantly - giggling, shouting, whispering and hissing can all be clearly heard. The first movement, "O Crux", lasts for over 35 minutes, much of which is dominated by the chorus. It's not easy going, but it is stunning - probably the strongest 'track' here, if we're playing favourites. Small ostinato melodies that disappear as soon as they have appeared, occasional microtonal glissandi and sound masses, vocal cries you'll indentify with if you ever followed up an interest in my review of Diamanda Galas (though, it must be said, this isn't as plain evil); this is heavyweight stuff. At around 16 minutes, it all kicks off - the massive tone clusters, first from the orchestra, then the chorus. Penderecki's trademark of the era, if he had one. It's mindblowing stuff. By the time you're at the 20 minute mark, it becomes apparent that this might be the greatest film score that never was. Certainly, Jurassic Park would be improved if this music accompanied the sheer terror of some of the more thrilling scenes.
The second movement, "In pulverum mortis", is arguably as massive, though it seems a little less impressive having followed "O Crux". Still, there are moments that are pure pyrotechnic brilliance - the climax at 4.20, for instance. In fact, it's heights may be even higher than those of "O Crux", though they are more sparse. The final 2 movements, on the other hand, are much smaller, standing at roughly 7 minutes each. What's most fascinating about these is that they both end with simple major chords (D and E respectively; the first a capella, the second with full orchestra). After bombarding the listener with tone centres, serialist ideas, chromaticism, and complete departures from any sense of Western tonality, these chords are perhaps the most shocking moments of the piece. The last 20 seconds of the almost entirely a capella "Stabat Mater" - which borrows heavily from an earlier Penderecki composition of the same name - sound very similar to the music that plays during the ITV Champions League coverage (just in case any British football fans are reading this).
Arguably all of Penderecki's obsessions come to the fore here, in this work. The contrast with atonal and tonal elements; the casual flirtation with serialism; the mass choral writing; the walls of pure sound; the tone clusters; the religious devotion that drives him. This is a fantastic work; every bit as important to both Penderecki and 20th century music as a whole as the more famous "Threnody For The Victims Of Hiroshima". As an album, too, I'd place this above Matrix 5
(an album SubtleDagger once referred to as 'my Bible', incidentally - so there's your Penderecki recommendation right there!). It's certainly one of the strongest complete works I've ever been exposed to.
The performance here is by the Warsaw National Philarmonic Chorus and the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra, and is conducted by Penderecki himself. The fidelity of the recording is excellent. It is, probably, the definitive recording of this work.