Krzysztof Penderecki’s reputation as a composer is a complicated affair. After his initial catapulting to fame with the Threnody to the Victims Hiroshima of 1961, he continued to build on the avant-garde style of this piece through a range of startling works, culminating in the monumental choral St Luke’s Passion from 1968. Then in the late-1970s Penderecki made a surprising decision to move away from the avant-garde and to adopt a post-romantic style and adopt more conventional forms such as symphonies and concertos. This change of idiom exposed him technically and left many critics and audiences nonplussed. It was as if a brilliant abstract artist had suddenly taken up complex figurative work without any real accumulation of technique. For many the new works seemed to lack the sophistication and originality of the early works.

Krzysztof Penderecki © Ludwig van Beethoven Association | Bartosz Koziak
Krzysztof Penderecki
© Ludwig van Beethoven Association | Bartosz Koziak

And this concert certainly emphasized this point. The two works in the first part of the concert fall into the post-romantic category and had far less impact than the searing account of the Threnody to the Victims Hiroshima that opened the second part of the concert. And what an emotionally devastating piece this still is, with the power to communicate its message to successive generations, as all great masterpieces should. In this performance Penderecki the conductor seemed the most animated, almost dragging out the gut wrenching sounds from the orchestra by sheer force of will.

This display of grief was an apt prelude to Shostakovich’s bizarre and disturbing Sixth Symphony, with its lopsided three movement form. The opening Adagio is one of the composers most sombre and heartfelt statements. A swiftish tempo kept the intensity flowing and avoided the slight risk of overstaying its welcome. A firm grip on the rhythmic pulse throughout kept the contours of the 20 minute movement in focus. The two jarringly perky short movements that follow were convincingly brought off by Penderecki and the LPO, with the conductor seeming to emphasise the darker central sections in both movements to positive effect. Particular praise must go to the hard working principal flute player here, Kate Bedford.

Of those first two works in the programme, the Adagio for Strings was first performed in 2013 and is an arrangement of the slow movement from his Third Symphony. With echoes of the Shostakovich symphony, it has neither the melodic brilliance nor the powerful control of atmosphere of that composer. 

Likewise, the Horn Concerto “Winterreise” from 2008. As with the Adagio this was a UK première. It certainly is the more striking work of the two, with some lively passages for the orchestra and expressive writing for the excellent soloist, Radovan Vlatković. However it still isn’t a work with a strong character, not distinctive harmonically, rhythmically nor melodically. In the brief encore One Hundred Dreams for solo horn, we did at least see a tantalising glimpse of both Penderecki worlds in one effective and amusing package.