Penderecki’s Seventh Symphony, “Seven Gates of Jerusalem” continued the composer’s line of grand religious works such as the St Luke Passion, Te Deum and Polish Requiem. It is therefore something of a highlight in his symphonic cycle, and you can expect any good recording to be something of an event. I’ve been reviewing these Dux label recordings against another excellent complete set; that on the Naxos label which can be found in a box set reviewed here. I also reviewed the separate CD release on Naxos 8.557766 way back in 2006. Readers wondering where the missing Sixth Symphony is will have to wait, perhaps forever – we are told it is still a ‘work in progress’.
The difference which hits you first about the Dux recording is the difference in scale of acoustic, which revels in the massive space of the Holy Heart of Jesus Basilica in Warsaw. This epic soundstage has great impact, but its management is clearly something with which the recording engineers might have to wrestle quite strenuously. The question of balancing detail against atmosphere is always a problem in a work as vast as this, but when your venue is swimming in resonance I can imagine numerous hurdles to be surmounted. In fact the result is pretty good all-round, though the soloists can swamp the orchestra at times, and there is a degree of artificiality in the final result which was no doubt unavoidable. In the end the balance in the Naxos version is more natural, with a richer orchestral sound and greater detail. Compare the opening of the second movement, where atmospheric goings-on in the strings go virtually unheard over the soprano solo under the composer’s directorship. There is much more harmonic texture in the Naxos version, and further on in this movement you can also hear more going on against the brass, which is impressive from Penderecki but covers other sonorities when in full-flow.
Taken on its own terms, the Dux recording does have plenty of gorgeous and striking moments. The choir is more earthy than the Warsaw National voices for Naxos, which sound a touch more disciplined but also more homogenous. There’s an argument for a more crowd-like and rowdy bunch in this work so the jury is out on which might be preferable. The third movement De profundis is the sample in this case, where character and emphatic expression are certainly in plentiful supply for the composer/conductor. Unfortunately there are no vocal texts given in the booklet, which would have been useful but would probably have made it too bulky. Rather this however, than the many pages devoted to how many other roles the soloists have taken: I had to result to the fold-and-tuck method as it is; the thing already too fat for a conventional jewel case.
Other aspects of each performance have me in one of those swings and roundabouts critical conundrums which make it hard to come down definitively on one side or another. Antoni Wit tends to be a stolid with those dramatic repeated notes in the fourth movement Si oblitus fuero tui, Jerusalem, where Penderecki obtains a feel of really ominous urgency. The really gritty brass sounds further along are also irresistible, being far more dramatic than Wit’s, and the atmosphere at the end of this movement is also rather special.
Percussion is a vital feature of the fifth movement, and which you can hear there is plenty going on in the Dux recording those remarkable tubaphones – tuned tubes struck with rubber bats – are rather lost. These are much more distinctive on the Naxos recording. Another element is that of the narrator, taken with melodramatic inflection by Boris Carmeli for Antoni Wit, and with rather more declamatory fervour by Słamowir Holland for the composer – creating real drama at the transition to the final movement in a way far more striking than with the Naxos recording.
So it goes on. In the end your choice will be heart over head, with a forceful emotional connection to the composer’s conducting on Dux against the more ‘accurate’ results obtained from Naxos. Big fans of this piece will know that another recording on Dux 0546 precedes this one, conducted by the composer in Krakow. This version also has much going for it, but is a good seven minutes compacter than the Basilica recording which sounds a good deal more expansive as a result. Dux could perhaps have shoehorned this into the present cycle, but the orchestral discipline is not as good and there are some quasi-chaotic moments, with the choir also sounding rather distant and uncertain at times. Another version on CD Accord ACD036 is pretty impressive and was the world première live recording in 1997 under the baton of Kazimierz Kord. This has more than just historical value and is actually rather special, with a genuinely moving overall effect.
Either way, no Penderecki collection will be complete without this formidable work, and Dux’s 2012 recording conducted by the composer is without doubt a remarkable experience and not one to be missed.