Krzysztof Penderecki’s symphonies cover a vast range of musical experience, and there are two recording labels which have done us the great service of releasing all of them. Naxos has a 5 CD box set (see review) which can be had for a bargain price, and the Dux label’s set is more than twice the price at the moment. Each release can also be had singly and will be reviewed as such, but the advice is to go for the boxes if you want all of the symphonies, since these will save you a good deal of money either way. My review of the Dux collection will be based on the single disc releases.
The Symphony No. 1 can be found coupled with the Fifth Symphony on Naxos 8.554567, with the Polish National Radio Orchestra conducted by Antoni Wit. This is an excellent recording and performance, set in a slightly drier acoustic but with a similar studio ‘vibe’ to the version here conducted by the composer. Composer-conducted performances are not always a guarantee of superiority, but Penderecki is widely experienced and knows how to get the sounds he wants out of his players.
The Symphony No. 1 occupies Penderecki’s avant-garde period and indeed is a kind of summing up of what he felt able to say as an avant-garde composer. As a result it is full of fascinating effects and textures. Take the second movement, where I can almost hear him demanding that the brass and winds imitate the ‘human voice’ with chilling results. This kind of thing can get the hairs on your neck to rise when done properly, and while Wit’s musicality is beyond question I don’t quite feel the same reality-shifting sounds from the PNRO winds, though the string sounds are every bit as jaw-dropping. When he wants to, Penderecki can fling open a door to infinity and a rare star-strewn beauty, and both recordings can take you to these places at the drop of a hat.
Percussion is also important in this symphony, and the Dux engineering takes us just that bit closer to the instruments, deepening the sonorities and lifting detail. There is a sense of menace in some of Penderecki’s repeated pizzicato, for instance in the third movement, and Wit is just a little too swift to convey this. A similar shift in atmosphere, with greater weight and conviction comes through from the final movement, and while it’s a close race Penderecki’s conducting wins in the end.
The Symphony No. 2 can be found coupled with the Fourth Symphony on Naxos 8.554492, which divides the work into five tracks rather than the Dux version which is on a single access point. This is subtitled Christmas Symphony but is by no means festive, as the brooding Straussian opening tells us straight away. The subtitle was withdrawn soon after the work appeared, but Franz Gruber’s Silent Night is quoted in the music which is an indication of the change in direction Penderecki had taken since the Symphony No. 1. This is tough music but in a tonal idiom which creates entirely different structures and shapes to the avant-garde writing of the 1960s and 1970s, at times inviting comparisons with Shostakovich and others. Detailed booklet notes serve the Dux release well, and the keen edge of the brass sound pips the Naxos recording marginally, though in most regards honours are about equal between Penderecki and Wit in this particular work.
In some ways both the Naxos and the Dux recordings are outdone by another composer-conducted version from EMI Classics (see review). This has some slightly untidy corners but has the benefit of the Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra of Kraków on good form in March 1983 - a period in which martial law was still in place in Poland. It is played with a passion and a raw intensity which suits the music perfectly, and this is a strong aspect which is less apparent in either of the more recent recordings.
As you would expect from the Dux label, this is a superbly recorded release with high production and presentation values. If you are prepared to spend the extra pounds to own this composer-conducted CD then you won’t be sorry.