Penderecki’s Third Symphony is a substantial work and is given a terrific performance conducted by the composer on this Dux release, part of a set of the complete symphonies (see review of symphonies 1 & 2). The competing Naxos single disc release of this work conducted by Antoni Wit, 8.554491, also includes the terrifying Threnody, as well as Fluorescences and De natura sonoris II, so even if it weren’t half the price it would still be twice the value in terms of musical content. The Naxos complete set is reviewed here.
In absolute musical terms the choice is by no means clear cut. Antoni Wit’s urgency in the second movement brings it in half a minute quicker than the composer. The visceral impact of the percussion is quite a feature of the Dux recording, but the Naxos has to my mind a more realistic balance, and the colour of some of the instruments is also more interesting. The brass is more penetrating and energetic from the Dux recording however, and as ever there is an element of swings and roundabouts in effect.
The central Adagio is crucial to this work, and I am less keen on the wide and wobbly vibrato we hear from the violins at the beginning in Penderecki’s own account. Antoni Wit’s sound is more generalised, but the sheen of string sound is easier on the ear. Wit takes an extra minute in this movement, but manages to sound less sentimental if a tad less passionate. The Passacaglia which follows echoes the repeated low notes of the opening movement, but also has a tough, stand-alone character like a prehistoric standing stone. It is one of the original 1988 movements and is strikingly powerful in both recording, the grander scale of Wit’s Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra standing its ground against the beefier growl of Penderecki’s Sinfonia Iuventas brass.
The final Scherzo is full of vitality in both recordings, but Wit is once again more compact, shaving a good half minute from Penderecki’s pace and making less of a meal of all those chugging repetitions. When commencing this survey of these two competing cycles I was fairly sure the composer’s own versions would be likely to pip those from Naxos, but in this case I am by no means sure it does. The Dux recording is detailed and Penderecki’s performance is gritty and persuasive, but if sailing off to my desert island it would be Antoni Wit I would take in the Third Symphony.