Krzysztof Penderecki conducts the London Philharmonic Orchestra in Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima, the UK premiere of Winterreise with Radovan Vlatković, and Shostakovich 6

Adagio for Strings [UK premiere]
Horn Concerto (Winterreise) [UK premiere]
Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima
Symphony No.6 in B minor, Op.54

Radovan Vlatković (horn)

London Philharmonic Orchestra
Krzysztof Penderecki

Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 14 October, 2015
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Krzysztof Penderecki at Festival of Stars in Gdańsk, 2008Contemporary Polish composers have done well by London this autumn – Górecki from the BBC Symphony Orchestra and this London Philharmonic concert with Krzysztof Penderecki. As a young man in the 1950s and 1960s, Penderecki was in the vanguard of Polish avant-garde music, which thrived in Poland’s more relaxed Communist regime. Then, in the 1970s, he did a radical reversal into a conservative neo-romantic idiom, a stance that attracted the sort of opprobrium that assailed Bob Dylan when he went electric. Now 82 and weighed down with honours he is the grand old man of Polish music.

The two UK premieres are from his later style, the Adagio for Strings saturated in a pan-Euro gloom that can’t help but reference Shostakovich – and however sincerely meant, it wasn’t exactly flattering. It’s an arrangement of the slow movement of his Symphony No.3, with the string principals taking up various wind solos that momentarily flourish and decay. Perhaps it would have benefited from being played in context, but the composer’s argument to present it separately didn’t seem that big a deal. It’s a piece that implies a programme, the absence of which consigned it to sounding just heartfelt.

The Horn Concerto (2008, ‘Winterreise’) is, according to the composer, nothing to do with Schubert, but there was no getting away from the fact that the instrument is one of romanticism’s chief emotional baggage carriers. As well as evoking misty yearnings, some of the music was fast, and there was a neatly scored asperity in the soloist’s busking with the woodwind clan. While putting the music first, Radovan Vlatković rose to all the technical challenges and gave the music a gratifying sense of personality and variety of mood. With barely enough applause (from what looked like a heavily-papered audience) to justify it, his encore was the composer’s Capriccio – a hunter’s dream, a witty, technical display piece.

Radovan VlatkovićPhotograph:’s Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima is probably his best-known work and one of the benchmarks of mid-20th-century expressionism, a virtuoso compendium of textures, note-clusters, slapping and knocking on instruments, big unisons that slowly fracture and other gestural techniques that define the style. Although dedicated to the atomic-bomb victims, it’s music that could easily apply to any horror. The LPO string-players vividly felt the music’s pain. They don’t write music like that anymore.

As conductor in his own music, Penderecki managed to communicate his wishes with what looked like generic, baton-free arm movements and some heavy shoulder-rolling. This was less effective in Shostakovich, and there would have been shape and ensemble problems if the leader Eugene Tichindeleanu (who had given some eloquent solos in the Penderecki pieces) hadn’t been to hand to put a bit of flick into the momentum.

Those performances of this Symphony, as confirmed recently by this orchestra and Vladimir Jurowski, that work best are those that imply the opening Largo is a response to the shade of an unwritten first movement. The music is full of fear, secrets and ambiguity, which were submerged by Penderecki’s reverential view of the work. Growth sounded episodic, solos were too over-lit, and the big brass moments had Technicolor flare, with instrumental layers too close for those sonic vacuums to open out under you. The two fast closing movements had a fine Soviet brutalism that got closest to the music’s brilliantly conceived and conflicted spirit.

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