I grew up learning my way around the classical repertoire by investigating signature tunes – on the radio and later on television – that appealed to me. Modern movie-goers can do much the same, though I suspect the vast majority never bother. Stanley Kubrick used Penderecki’s The Awakening of Jacob (also listed as The Dream of Jacob or under its original German title Als Jakob erwachte) for his horror film The Shining. In a concert given in Hamburg’s Elbphilharmonie by the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra under Alexander Liebreich, marking the start of a whole season devoted to Polish music in celebration of the centenary of the foundation of the modern Polish state, it was a strange choice for a jubilant commemoration.

Alexander Liebreich
© Bartek Barczyk

Comfortable music this is not: it is intended to represent the sweeping sense of awe and fear experienced by Jacob in a biblical dream. The seven-minute piece is most notable, aside from the general spookiness engendered by the intricate orchestration, for the addition of ocarinas played by the ten members of the woodwind section, heard hooting like admonitory owls at the opening and close. Not at all a tempting hors d’oeuvre for a festive banquet.

Another short piece began the second half, its character perhaps more appropriate as a nightcap (this was left to the orchestral encore, “Åse’s Death” from Peer Gynt, again not an obvious pick). Seven years before he applied for political asylum in the UK, Panufnik had paid a visit to London in 1947 and found himself inspired by a moonlit walk along the Thames. This resulted in his Lullaby for 29 strings and two harps, the first work in which he made use of quarter tones. It is an unquestionably effective piece, and well realised here, moving from the icy stillness of the first violins in their highest register (with pulsating harps providing the rhythmic flow of the river) through the remaining string sections and throbbing double-basses to culminate in a warm and all-embracing glow.

These two brief starter-dishes were paired in each half with more substantial fare. It is easily forgotten that Paderewski was once one of Europe’s greatest keyboard virtuosos, well before he assumed the political role for which he is chiefly remembered in the history-books (he was one of the signatories of the Versailles Treaty in 1919). His Piano Concerto in A minor, completed in 1888, was deemed by Saint-Saëns, whom the composer had consulted in person, to be “quite ready” and certainly “a crowd pleaser”. It does have its moments: the Romanza middle movement impresses with courtly elegance (hints of Chopin) and warm introspection (touches of Schumann), and these contrasted well with the cascades of notes (thundering octaves borrowed from Tchaikovsky’s B flat minor) and the slightly repetitive regal flourishes (à la Liszt) in the outer movements. Szymon Nehring, winner of the Artur Rubinstein competition in 2017, was an ardent advocate of his compatriot’s sugar-and-spice concoction, but despite his brilliance in the many bravura passages (and also in his encore, Paderewski’s Cracovienne fantastique) he wasn’t able to persuade me that concertos in the same key by Grieg and Schumann need fear for their status.

The folkloristic elements woven into the piano concerto are also at the heart of Lutosławski’s Concerto for Orchestra. Connections are often made with Bartók’s similarly entitled composition, but I was equally struck by the influence of Britten (in his Young Person’s Guide, written a decade earlier), not least in the delicate interplay of wind and percussion. It is scored for a huge orchestra and Lutosławski deploys individual colours to scintillating effect, as in the close of the Intrada where the celesta provides rhythmic underpinning in its constant chiming. At the outset Liebreich had secured powerfully earthy sounds from the lower strings, accompanied by pounding timpani, with all the necessary thrust of starter-rockets on the launching-pad. Here and elsewhere the playing was rhythmically alert, and the strings displayed exceptional agility in the closing pages of the work.

This Polish orchestra boasts a solid ensemble, but without the finesse or tonal sophistication of other leading radio orchestras. Its qualities were more apparent in the central Capriccio notturno e Arioso, where in a passage that the composer marks mormorando (murmuring) solo players toss the material back and forth in sequences of chirping and whirring. Such filigree characteristics emerged with crystalline clarity, but once the orchestra moved up the gears into areas of more extreme dynamics one of the hall’s deficiencies again made itself felt. There was no avoiding a sense of congestion with a harsh glare, the strings frequently submerged in the onslaught from brass and percussion. This was a pity, since Lutosławski’s orchestral masterpiece can easily hold its own as an exuberantly inventive composition, the ear never tiring and led intriguingly from one sparkling moment to the next.