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Krzysztof PENDERECKI (1938-2020)
St. Luke Passion (1966)
Sarah Wagener (soprano), Lucas Meachem (baritone), Matthew Rose (bass), Sławomir Holland (speaker), Warsaw Boys’ Choir, Kraków Philharmonic Choir, Montreal Symphony Orchestra/Kent Nagano
rec. live, 20 July 2018, Felsenreitschule, Salzburg
Latin text with translation in English, French and German
BIS BIS2287 SACD [66:52]

This was Penderecki’s breakthrough work. It excited enormous enthusiasm at its premiere, and was soon performed all around the world. This was partly because it was an openly religious work, yet it came from then Communist Eastern Europe. It was also because it was in an avant-garde idiom but was also approachable, and it made an immediate emotional impact. Unlike some other avant-garde works of the time – I am thinking of compositions by Stockhausen and Nono – it has retained a place in the repertory and attracted several recordings.

Penderecki was obviously aware of the Bach passions when he wrote his work. The choice of St Luke’s version of the passion narrative may have been partly because no authentic example by Bach survives. (The so-called Bach St Luke passion is spurious.) The setting is in Latin, rather than German as in Bach’s passions. The decision not to use Polish makes it more internationally accessible. Loosely modelled on Bach’s works, it is divided into many numbers, twenty-seven in all. It has the narrative lead-in stages, though by a speaker instead of a singer, and is interspersed with arias and choral numbers. The texts of these are taken partly from the Bible and partly from the liturgy; there are no hymns. The individual numbers are mostly short, and the idiom is constantly varied. Avant-garde techniques include twelve-tone rows, tone clusters, atonality, quarter-tones, requiring the chorus to whisper or shout, occasionally using extremes of range and passages using chance effects – the aleatoric technique which was fashionable at the time. There also is traditional writing which can remind one of Bach, or go back even earlier to Palestrina. As a particular homage to Bach, the motif of his name, the notes BACH (H is B flat in German) occurs from time to time. Apart from the speaker, there are three soloists and four choirs: a boys’ choir and three mixed choirs. The large orchestra includes additional brass and a great deal of percussion. The avant-garde effects are now over fifty years old, so listeners may even find them corny rather than striking, but they seem to me to wear well.

I need to stress that the work is easy to listen to. Because the individual numbers are short, there is plenty of variety. And some of them are very beautiful: the Miserere, number 12, is particularly striking, and the booklet explains that it is cunningly constructed using Schonbergian transformations of the tone-rows and Bach motif. There is also a Passacaglia, number 16, which sets the Improperia of the Good Friday Liturgy with constantly changing choral techniques. I was also very affected by some of the arias, and by the single purely orchestral movement, number 26.

The performance here is vigorous and committed. Sławomir Holland, a very experienced actor, does a fine job as the speaker. The singing soloists are an international team with both concert and opera experience, and they also do a good job, although their parts are not as prominent as in the Bach works. Kent Nagano, an old hand at this kind of piece, steers his large forces with an expert hand. The booklet suggests that the work takes 80 minutes but this performance takes just under 67, so this must be a faster performance than some.

The recording is of a live performance at the Salzburg festival, and I have to say that the acoustic is very reverberant and tends to blur the words. (This is a SACD but I was listening in ordinary two-channel stereo.) You need to have the text in front of you. Fortunately, the booklet provides this, with translations as well as a helpful essay.

I had long known of this work but I had never previously actually heard it. I am very glad to have done so. It makes an enormous impact. I am less sure how often one would want to hear it, in contrast to the Bach passions or some other more traditional music of the time, such as Britten’s War Requiem, which came out only four years earlier. Penderecki himself seemed to have similar thoughts as, some years after, he changed his idiom to a more tonal one. Still, if you have any interest in relatively recent music you should hear it. As I mentioned, there are several other recordings, including one conducted by the composer, but I am sure this will hold its own among them.

Stephen Barber

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