I don't know which one of you pre-verts sent me the third nipple piercings, but damn it, I looked at those at work! (I know, given the URL, stupid me.)
Twentieth-Century Eastern European Classical Music Roundup Part Two: Krzysztof Penderecki
Orchestral Works Vol. 1 (EMI); National Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra, London Symphony Orchestra cond. Krzysztof Penderecki, 1973-1976. This two-disc set goes up to the First Symphony and hits all the big titles from Penderecki's early, avant-garde era, before he decided to tone things down. I don't always know what to say about this music, which of course is part of the point. Obviously the Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima is meant to be shattering, while the pieces where metal objects are dropped on harpsichord strings are more in a spirit of fun, but the trombones that sound like air-raid sirens? How am I supposed to feel about those trombones? There's a lot of interest here, but it requires concentration and is almost exclusively intellectual, to the point where you don't want to listen to more than about 40 minutes at once. I will make an exception for the Emanation for Two String Orchestras, the Capriccio for Violin and Orchestra, which is more rhythmically interesting, and especially the choral Dream of Jacob; you bring human voices in, everything alters. I bet that's exactly what a smackdown with an angel sounds like.
Orchestral Works Vol. 1 (Naxos); National Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra (Krakow) cond. Antoni Wit, 2000. The Third Symphony is probably my favorite of the lot; it strikes a nice balance between Krzysztof's avant-garde and neo-romantic tendencies. The percussion is really interesting, and the fourth movement, which consists of a single repeated chord on the strings, would be bombastic and silly if it weren't for the slowly rising, atonal shriek provided by the rest of the orchestra in the background. Having said that, I think the Amazon reviewers are correct in saying that this version of the Threnody is all wrong. There's brutal, viewpoint-shattering noise; and then there's noise that just sort of irritates you; and this is the latter. I don't really know what went wrong, given that generally Wit has his act together, but it never quite congeals. I guess it's a good reminder of how difficult it is to make these sonic effects work.
Orchestral Works Vol. 2 (Naxos); National Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra (Krakow) cond. Antoni Wit, 2000. The Fifth Symphony is a pretty good sum-up of Penderecki to date; it soars, grieves, occasionally hits you with carefully rationed noise bursts, cuts a tin can like a tomato. The First Symphony also appears on the EMI release; it's a bit more approachable than the other avant-garde works, but not much. I do like the way it starts out with vibraphone.
Orchestral Works Vol. 3 (Naxos); National Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra (Krakow) cond. Antoni Wit, 2000. The Second Symphony (inexplicably subtitled the "Christmas Symphony") is pretty damn bleak; the most conventional of Penderecki's orchestral works, it's also the most ponderous. Fortunately, the Fourth Symphony is much more interesting. The highlight is some gorgeous lyrical writing for solo bassoon, which is good, because a lot of the time no one asks the bassoon for anything but comical duck noises. The bassoon can't give it away on Seventh Avenue, one might say. Except here.
Violin Concerto No. 2 "Metamorphosen" (Naxos); Anne-Sophie Mutter, London Symphony Orchestra cond. Krzysztof Penderecki, 1998. The Threnody is pretty much locked in as Krzysztof's most influential piece, but I think this one is the best. I can't actually determine how hot Anne-Sophie Mutter is (she wears a weird sweater in the liner notes) but can that lady play. I really need to find her doing Berg and Sibelius and some of the other biggies. The piece nicely skirts both the overdeveloped tragic tone that weighs down some of the symphonies, and the sense of cerebral fucking around that can grate with the avant-garde works. It's pretty much an affirmation that despite the fragmentation of the scene between the pencil-necked Adornophiles on one hand and Sarah Brightman on the other, orchestral music is alive and well somewhere. Toast Mr. Penderecki with a slivovitz; he's earned it.
And that is that. I have heard no Lutoslawki at all, but after all of this Amazon sure thinks I need his Fourth Symphony. That, a wok, and the complete sixth season of Friends.