PENDERECKI: Symphony No. 2 [1979-80]. Symphony No. 4 [1989].
National Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra, Antoni Wit, cond.

Naxos 8.554492  (B) [DDD]  TT: 65:14

In mid-April of 1980, Zubin Mehta received the score of Symphony No. 2 just weeks before he conducted the world premiere with the New York Philharmonic. Back then it was called the "Christmas Symphony,"  because Penderecki  (pronounced "Penda-rets-kee") had begun writing it on the evening of December 24, 1979 -- a private superstition you can read about in Richard Whitehouse's notes for Naxos.  Played without pause, the symphony lasted less than 30 minutes when Mehta and the NYP gave the European premiere at Salzburg on August 30, 1980.

By the time Penderecki guest-conducted it in April 1985 with Irwin Hoffman's estimable Florida Orchestra (shared by Clearwater, Tampa, and St. Petersburg), he'd withdrawn the subtitle and expanded the development section -- structure is a humongous sonata-allegro -- which further lengthened the work. It still contained a fragment of Franz Gruber's  'Silent Night'  in the exposition and the reprise, but you must listen carefully to hear it. Far more prominent is the march theme from Shostakovich's Seventh Symphony, go figure. From the beginning Symphony No. 2 was described as 'a work in progress,' which explains in part why this second commercial recording lasts 34 minutes and 25 seconds (the first was a Belgian-Polish collaboration on the Pavane label).

To borrow the Malapropism of a former associate, the music is "trugid" -- sticky-thick, tonal but dissonant, with a really boring fugato in the second movement that goes on and on. Overall, it is a further step backward from his 1978 opera Paradise Lost, which had abandoned the aleatory avant-gardisme that made Penderecki famous in the late '50s and early '60s. His futurism dried up like a drought-stricken creek bed after his first opera, The Devils [of Loudun], a harrowingly raucous Grand Guignol that managed to offend just about everyone. One writer in the '80s linked Penderecki's "new" style with Bruckner and Reger, although I felt back then, and wrote in a program note for the Florida Orchestra's three performances, that it was closer to Shostakovich, whose Sixth and Eighth Symphonies Penderecki guest conducted frequently. Listening to this obviously dedicated performance by the composer's countrymen, I take back that libel; Reger is the pivotal influence, and if you find his gnarly music as boring as I do, you're likely to find this Symphony a Sominex.

The Fourth of Penderecki's five symphonies to date is more antic, unembarrassed by its relationship to the composer's music from his late twenties. But, as Whitehouse writes for Naxos, it is "the most discursive formally, a series of events associated by type and scoring, and given continuity by the prevailing emotional ambivalence" (you'll have to parse that one yourself). In other words, it spills out of the score like mercury from a broken thermometer. At least, though, it isn't texturally "trugid."  Both recordings feature a more spacious acoustic than one usually hears from Katowice, although Beata Jankowika continues to be listed as producer and engineer.

R.D. (Oct. 2000)