MUSIC / Reckoning with the popular P factor: Tess Knighton reviews Krzysztof Penderecki conducting the Leipzig Radio Symphony Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall

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The Independent Culture
The Polish factor is not the title for a new John le Carre thriller, but a force to be reckoned with in late 20th century music. Krzysztof Penderecki has yet to achieve the cult status of his compatriot and contemporary Henryk Gorecki (they were born within weeks of one another), or the international esteem in which Witold Lutoslawski (20 years their senior) is held, but these could both be his before long.

One could be cynical and suggest that the promoter of this all-Penderecki concert (which forms part of a UK tour with the Leipzig Radio Symphony Orchestra) was as aware of the P factor as breakfast television directors are, apparently, of the F factor. But this was a fitting tribute to the composer in his 60th year and the programme, which he conducted himself, was greeted with enthusiasm by the audience in the Royal Festival Hall, London.

Whether it will be possible with the benefit of hindsight to talk usefully of a 'Polish school' remains to be seen, but it is clear that the music (and especially the more recent works) of these composers shares certain traits. One is a feeling for long-range structure; another is the boldly imaginative use of orchestral sonority; but perhaps the most important is the directness with which they communicate with the listener. This is particularly true of Penderecki's more 'traditional' pieces, such as those presented in this very traditional showcase concert of, in effect, overture, concerto and symphony.

His fascination with the Germanic symphonic tradition, and especially with Bruckner (stimulated during his time as professor at Yale) was as apparent in the brief Adagietto from his opera Paradise Lost (composed at precisely that period) as in the Second Symphony, the Christmas (1980) which in many ways represents the consolidation of his 'traditional' style. This is a magpie's nest of a piece that draws on the most disparate elements, from indigenous Polish musical traditions to one of the best known of all Christmas carols, 'Silent Night'. Yet the whole is skilfully contrived so that these elements are woven into the symphonic fabric and shine like polished stones catching in the light of motivic development. The whole symphony, played as a continuous movement, is developed from the interval of the third, mostly the minor third, so that 'Silent Night' grows organically out of the texture, while the sudden, brief shifts to major thirds for the 'Polish' theme, heightened by the scoring of brass with, second time around, elaboration on glockenspiels, provide moments of transcendental beauty.

Motivic development based on certain key intervals also dominated the other work in this programme. In the Second Cello Concerto it was the minor second and the tritone that were all-pervasive and provided Timothy Hugh, the soloist, with some devilish passage-work.

The solo cello provided a twisting, sometimes faltering, melodic thread through the labyrinth of sound, and was played with complete technical accurance by Hugh.

The Leipzig Radio Symphony Orchestra played throughout with tremendous conviction, though rather stolidly under Penderecki's clear but rather ungiving left-handed beat. The brass sound was marvellously fat.