April 2004

Penderecki - St. Luke Passion
Izabella Klosinska (sopr.), Adam Kruszewski (bar.), Romuald Tesarowicz (bass), Krzysztof Kolberger (Evangelist); Jaroslaw Malanowicz (organ); Warsaw Boys’ Choir; Warsaw National Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra, Antoni Wit cond.
Naxos 8.557149
Released: 2004

by Richard Freed

Musical Performance ****1/2
Recording Quality ****
Overall Enjoyment ****1/2

The St. Luke Passion was the big work that brought the young Penderecki (then 32) his most stunning success up to the time of its premiere in 1966. It confirmed Penderecki as one of the most significant and wholly original composers of his generation, and also served to focus attention on his earlier works in various forms, such as the threnody for 52 solo strings called To the Victims of Hiroshima, the pithy String Quartet No.1, the orchestral Polymorphia, Anaklasis and Flurorescences, and the choral Psalms of David. The first recording of the Passion, conducted by Henryk Czyz on the Polish label Muza, was circulated in the West on various labels throughout the remainder of the LP era. A performance under the composer himself, with an international roster of soloists, was recorded digitally in Cracow in December 1989 and issued on Argo. Antoni Wit, who studied with both Czyz and Penderecki, has earned high marks for his Naxos series of this composer’s orchestral works, and now gives us a quite distinguished account of the St. Luke Passion. This is the sort of thing that has changed Naxos’s image from that of an economical source of stopgap recordings of variable quality for the benefit of the fiscally handicapped to that of simply one of the most resourceful, reliable and economical sources, producing fully competitive and even, as in the present case, authoritative versions, irrespective of price.

In the process Naxos has also established Antoni Wit’s name as an assurance of solid musical satisfaction embodying insight, conviction, technical command and, particularly in Penderecki, authority to match the most respected of his predecessors, not excluding the composer himself. All the considerable drama of this still unparalleled work is set off in brilliant relief against the firm underpinning of its numerous unusual effects (on the part of both voices and instruments), the unchallengeable seriousness with which every phrase of the text is made to register, and the score’s subtle yet unremitting sense of momentum. There are both an urgency and an uncompromising conviction in this realization of the work that somehow extend beyond the confines of the particular faith whose liturgy provides the framework to encompass the whole of humanity. No need to single out this or that soloist or episode, for every participating element without exception is functioning at full efficiency and on the highest level -- and the production team was definitely a full partner in this achievement.

If you haven’t yet made the acquaintance of this remarkable work, Naxos has left you with little excuse for failing to remedy that omission, and be assured you can make the modest investment in this splendidly produced CD with full assurance that there is not likely to be a need to upgrade later on.