Two rugged, brooding giants

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The Independent Culture



WHEN NEW music was about pursuing extremes, Krzysztof Penderecki was the popular front of the avant-garde. Now that half the world's composers are trying to be communicative his music has become rather a rarity. The ovation from a large audience on Sunday ran well beyond immediate reaction to the UK premiere of his Symphony No 5, and sounded like warmth towards one of the century's survivors.

Twenty years ago, consistency is not the word many people would have used about Penderecki. He made his name with wild sounds for strings, then started doing strange things such as ending a piece with a major chord, or - shock, horror - writing a symphony. These multiplied and became almost romantic in tone, part of a movement towards more direct expression throughout north Europe. But in Britain we didn't yet know about Gorecki and Pärt, and the taste police soon had him sidelined.

He has stuck with an intense, rugged musical language, brooding or driven in mood, completely unsensuous and quite stark. He orchestrates his lines heavily and puts them together in simple textures. Never fully tonal, the music is more demanding than that of many of his contemporaries, often through sheer length: with the London Symphony Orchestra he conducted just two single-movement spans.

The Cello Concerto No 2 was written for Mstislav Rostropovich, a popular guest of the orchestra, and it was shrewd programming to put him before the symphony (though a few seats emptied at half-time). This is a real Rostropovich piece, its solo part quick-changing in mood and athletic in technique. The man himself took control from the moment he shoved Penderecki on to the platform ahead of him, and gave the performance his usual 105 per cent. As an entity, the concerto works like a novel, the adventures of a four-note theme, which sticks in the mind and weaves its way into a series of quick and slow situations. All it lacks is a single peak moment. The end comes suddenly, just after the opening music reappears, but it could easily have occurred earlier or later.

No problem about the climax in the symphony. Trumpets spread around the hall blasted out at several turning points, but they took their time to meet up with an equal weight of percussion, and only the big finish had the same impact. They gave the piece a clearer and more satisfying shape than the concerto. Again built from a couple of brief ideas, the music is enclosed by emphatic unisons. The sound of forthright violas was prominent. Once they got up to speed, setting off a sort of deconstructed fugue, the momentum never stopped. Penderecki seems to have gained energy in his sixties. No doubt the old survivor will have many more surprises to come.