The London Philharmonic Orchestra, guest-conducted by Michal Dworzynski, continued The Rest is Noise festival with a concert celebrating “Sublime Polish Melodies”. Both composers featured were born in the same year, 1933, and the works performed both came from 43 years later, having been written in 1976. The two pieces are also different Polish musical reactions to the Nazis and the Holocaust. Penderecki and Górecki were both devout Catholics, tying this concert into the festival’s sub-theme of “Politics and Spirituality”.

Michal Dworzynski © Chris Christodoulou
Michal Dworzynski
© Chris Christodoulou

Penderecki celebrated his 80th birthday four days before the concert, and this performance of his Violin Concerto no. 1 was a fitting birthday celebration. The concerto was one of the first works to mark his move away from the avant-garde, towards more traditional forms of composition. It is seen by many as a musical reflection on the times Penderecki had lived through, and his father was also dying as he wrote it; a sense of anguish and impotent rage permeates the entire work. It focuses on semitones and tritones, developing motifs based on both intervals throughout the piece, which is a continuous work lasting 40 minutes.

Penderecki himself trained as a violinist, which is evident from the extremely challenging writing for the soloist. Barnabas Kelemen rose to the challenge, marrying brilliant virtuousity to deep expressiveness. Whether racing through leaping runs or holding eye-wateringly high notes, his tone never faltered. So energetic was his performance that he had to spend some time removing bow hairs. The orchestra, too, committed their full energy to the performance, and I heard war-like sounds that reminded me of Holst’s Mars, alongside echoes of the anguish of death felt in Berg’s Violin Concerto.

In the pre-concert talk, Dworzynski rejected the notion that this piece was neo-Romantic, describing it as entirely modern. And yet in the slower, more expansive passages, he coaxed a lush, Romantic sound that contrasted nicely with the raging, fast, juddering passages. The concerto itself feels slightly too long a piece, so I did not place any blame for my loss of focus midway on the performers. Their energy never sagged, and the piece ended on a high, literally, as Keleman held the clear high note which seems to be the trademark end of the 20th-century violin concerto.

Like Penderecki, Górecki started his composing career in the avant-garde, but he later headed towards a sacred minimalist style, which is all the more interesting given the relative artistic freedom enjoyed by postwar Polish composers. Subtitled “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs”, Górecki’s Third Symphony is a prime example of this style. It takes the unusual step of employing a soprano soloist alongside the orchestra, declaiming three texts on the separation of parent and child. The first movement is beautifully crafted from one theme repeated in canon, built up layer upon layer, while the second and third movements alternate between major and minor themes. 

Devoting more rehearsal time to an unfamiliar piece on a programme at the expense of a well-known one is a trap performers are always in danger of falling into, and here the London Philharmonic unfortunately went down this rabbit hole.

Rather oddly, the house lights were left up for the performance, which meant the audience took some time to settle into the performance. It started well enough, with a perfect unison from the double basses at the beginning. However, the tempo sped up with each new entry, to one that felt a little rushed. In the case of the violas, it literally rushed, and they were often half a beat ahead of the conductor and everyone else.

Allison Bell is a singer I very much admire, but here she did not seem at her best, and struggled to be distinct against the orchestra on her lower entries. When her voice opened up in the upper register her singing was beautiful. However, on occasions the voice sounded unsupported, and tuning and timing suffered as a result. Again, I suspected rehearsal time with the orchestra was limited, which led to a lack of polish, although by the third movement she was much improved.

The false ending in the third movement fooled a sizeable proportion of the audience; perhaps they had not seen Bell rise to her feet seconds beforehand. Alternatively it may have been an unconscious expression of desire for the end. By the time the last of the clunky repeated chords had sounded I was certainly sorrowful, but for all the wrong reasons.