Fifty years after Penderecki’s landmark work first shocked the Festival Hall, the St Luke Passion still has plenty of emotional power and unflinching directness. Judging by the standing ovation for the 83-year-old composer, it still attracts plenty of admirers too. When the work propelled the composer to the forefront of modernism in 1966 at its German première, its avant-garde techniques were seen as alarmingly new. But no less daring was the appearance of a defiantly Christian work from an officially atheist and Communist Poland. William Mann in The Times hailed Penderecki as having an “extraordinary fecund imagination for musical sonority”. Today, Penderecki’s atonal meanderings, tone clusters and advanced vocal effects no longer startle, yet the force of this music is still compelling and violent passages remain emotionally uncompromising.
Commissioned by West German Radio for the 700th anniversary of Munster Cathedral, the St Luke Passion is a synthesis of contemporary musical devices with centuries-old choral tradition drawn from Bach, Gregorian chant and Palestrina. The Passion narrative, interleaved with psalms, verses from the Book of Lamentations and the Stabat Mater, is sung in Latin, its universal language designed as much to convey the suffering of Christ as memories of the Holocaust and the suffering and death at Auschwitz.
On Saturday, as part of the Southbank’s “Beyond and Belief” series, the success of this Anglo-Polish performance was largely due to the advocacy of Vladimir Jurowski whose compelling account was given assured support from the London Philharmonic Orchestra and three excellent choruses; the Polish Radio Choir, Camerata Silesia, (occasionally using tuning forks to locate their pitches) and the Warsaw Boys Choir – who sang their challenging lines from memory. Also making their own distinctive contribution were three soloists; a soothingly radiant Elizabeth Atherton, German baritone Dietrich Henschel, who made light work of the vocal extremities in his role as Christ but whose head was frequently buried in his score, and an authoritative Tomasz Konieczny (Polish) taking the roles of Peter and Pontius Pilate. Omar Ebrahim provided well-paced narration but was regrettably over-amplified.
The choruses seemed thoroughly at home with the demands of Penderecki’s writing, which requires no small skill in its execution. From the opening contemplation of the Cross it was clear from their secure pitching and taut ensemble that they were taking this work in their stride. To the music’s atonal passages, vocal ululations, shrieks, jeers and murmurings they responded like ducks to water. Firm low basses provided a marvellous anchor to the chant-like a cappella lines of Stabat mater, where cries of Christie (on a chord divided into multiple parts) were intensely fervent.
The London Philharmonic was no less impressive and brought vivid colouring to the score at key points – with two saxophones snaking their way through the texture during Peter’s denial, eerily muted strings as Jesus stood before Pilate and a salvo of mocking percussion as the bystanders ridicule Jesus.
But what impressed most was Jurowski’s sure-footed and unruffled approach to the complexities of this score, its emotional trajectory superbly paced. Little wonder the presence of Penderecki prompted a standing ovation.
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