Although Krysztof Penderecki has long been recognized for his operas (The Devils of Loudun, 1969; Paradise Lost, 1978; The Black Mask, 1986; Ubu, 1991) and large-scale choral works (St Luke Passion, 1965; Utrenja, 1971; Te Deum, 1979; Polish Requiem, 1984 and Credo, 1998), recognition as a symphonic writer came belatedly. This is partly because up until the early 1970s, the immediacy and physicality of his orchestral works was paralleled by their general brevity (the three pieces accompanying Symphony No. 3 on Volume 1 of this series [Naxos 8.554491] exemplify these qualities). Yet as the First Symphony proves, the gestural nature of his earlier music was susceptible to a considerable degree of long-term, 'symphonic' development.
Symphony No. 1, in four continuous sections, was commissioned by the Peterborough firm of Perkins Engines, and first performed there in 1973 by the London Symphony Orchestra and the composer. Surprise at the source of the commission went hand in hand with (false) speculation that the opening pages were a recreation of sounds heard at an actual engineering plant. Indeed the opening of Arche I [track 2] is as scintillating as it is memorable: a striking accumulation of percussion patterns, culminating in wailing brass Two crucial ideas now emerge a walking motion in the lower strings (2'32"); and the note A held ominously by the horns (4'18"), leading into the longest section, Dynamis I [track 3]. Despite interjections from upper strings (the extraordinary 'tuning' passage at 2'49") brass and percussion, 'A' remains a fixed presence on the musical landscape. Strings effect a gradual climax (from 10'34"), before coalescing around A and a prolonged fade-out, broken by the robust Stravinskian chords of Dynamis II [track 4]. This is the symphony's scherzo, playful and often hectic. A series of snatched silences stops the music in its tracks and prepares for the climactic onslaught (6'17"). Against pounding timpani and bass drum, frantic sounds errupt from woodwind and brass, only to collapse into a return of the 'walking motion' in lower strings, and the concluding Arche II [track 5]. Amid recollections of earlier events, and ghostly reminders of those initial percussion patterns, the symphony winds down to a series of A's in the double basses, with which it ends.
At the time the First Symphony was premi�red, Penderecki was quoted as saying that his compositional style over the previous 15 years had reached a natural conclusion, and that he was tempted to seek a new language in the electronic studio. The stylistic shift which took place, though musically a good deal more conservative, was prophetic of the move away from Modernism that influenced many European and American composers over the following decade. Works such as his second symphony, the Christmas Symphony, deal unashamedly with a 'neo-romantic' tonal language rooted in the soundworld of Wagner and Bruckner. As the 1980s progressed, however, elements of irony and parody became apparent, along with a vivid and hard-hitting orchestration that owes something to the example of Shostakovich; a composer Penderecki has conducted on numerous occasions.
Symphony No. 5 was premi�red in Seoul in 1992, and a Korean folksong threads its way unobtrusively through the lower strings at certain points. Penderecki again favours a single movement, although, unlike his second and fourth symphonies [both heard on Naxos 8.554492], the strongly-drawn contrast between slower and faster sections gives the work a greater dynamic charge. The opening features intense repeated chords in the violas and mournful descending sequences in the upper strings, ideas that will return often. Violas launch an animated fugal motion (4'54"), with pungent interjections from brass and percussion, as the music escalates to a brief climax, before relapsing into the depths. The solo horn now inaugurates a procession over funereal strings and tolling bells (10'18"), before the 'scherzo' emerges with whirring strings and rapid woodwind phrases. Clamourous brass and grinding string chords lead to a quirky 'trio' (16'32"), in which a martial theme is passed between instruments with a very Shostakovich-like irony. The scherzo material returns, leading to a forceful climax, after which cellos and oboes create a lachrymose mood. At length, the violas' fugal writing returns to propel the work to its main climax (29'33"), with brass sounding Mahlerian clarion calls across the whole orchestra. Plaintive responses from the oboe and cor anglais prepare for the return of the horn's battle-weary lament, while the opening ideas are recalled in what promises to be a valedictory leave-taking. But aggressive strings usher in a brief coda (35'12"), with F hammered out relentlessly: the effect is conclusive, far from triumphal and typical of the mature Penderecki.