Istanbul's classical music audience had one of these once in a life time opportunities to savour when the Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic Orchestra had the privilege of playing three works of Krzysztof Penderecki under the composer's own baton.

Krzysztof Penderecki © Peter Anderson | Schott Promotion
Krzysztof Penderecki
© Peter Anderson | Schott Promotion

Penderecki, born in 1933, is one of the living legends of the second half of the 20th-century music. Contrary to his contemporaries, Penderecki has remained rather tonal in his musical language. He was pretty much politicised, close to the Solidarity movement in Poland and also to the Catholic Church. Penderecki composed his Polish Requiem the day one of his closest friends, Cardinal Wyszynski, passed away in 1981. The opening piece of the concert was the Agnus Dei from this choral work. Turning around A minor, with its peacefully sad main motif passing around all sections of the orchestra, set the general mood of the concert: sombre. The orchestra played beautifully, full of delicate colours, balanced with wonderful dynamics.

Penderecki has transcribed his Viola Concerto for cello. We had the chance to listen to this version with cellist László Fenyö as soloist. Penderecki was commissioned by the Symphonic Orchestra of Venezuela to write a piece for the bicentenary birth anniversary of the Venezuelan hero Simón Bolívar in 1983. The piece starts with a short soliloquy by the cello. This is actually the motivic cell from which the whole single movement concerto stems. The piece is very well balanced between solo and orchestral parts. The soloist has a couple of cadenzas to show off his/her mastery. Penderecki makes use of the whole possible register of the cello, especially in the higher part, which in turn demands very difficult positions. Nevertheless Fenyö was brilliant especially in these parts. He had a very pure sound even in the quietest moments, not to mention his mastery in phrasing and dynamics. Penderecki uses drones a great deal in different sections of the orchestra but naturally most of time in the winds: horns and clarinets. I was impressed every single time when the drone popped up, by the regularity of the sound emission in its dynamic and tone colour not to mention the breath control, which was overwhelming. 

The concert closed with Penderecki’s Second Symphony. Penderecki prefers again a large single movement form internally divided into more traditional fast and slow sections. This symphony has five main sections which interestingly not only follow a rough symphonic form but at the same time mimic a basic sonata-form of exposition, development and recapitulation completed with a final coda. Penderecki drew from the orchestra a weighty and full sound. Again, great praise to both players and Penderecki for a rendition with wide range and telling detail. The brass has some formidably demanding parts to play and sounded very impressive. Central to the emotional impact of the work is a brass-led Alleluia figure that comes towards the close of the opening exposition section. Further emotional and musical resolution is found with the return of the Alleluia near the work's ending although this potentially exultant ending is soured by an immediate descent into an abyss of growling low brass and insistent timpani pedal notes. These in turn, at last fade away in order to allow a final haltingly insecure reference to Silent Night. The symphony ended in a mood of meditative resignation.