PENDERECKI: Violin Concerto No. 2, “Metamorphoses”. BARTÓK : Violin Sonata No. 2

PENDERECKI Violin Concerto No. 2, “Metamorphoses”. BARTÓK Violin Sonata No. 2 – Anne-Sophie Mutter (vn); Krzysztof Penderecki, cond; London SO; Lambert Orkis (pn) – DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 289 453 507-2 (58:01)

I am sure that aficionados of  Krzysztof Penderecki already know that his Second Violin Concerto is a major work and that its dedicatee, Anne-Sophie Mutter, offers a splendid performance. Those listeners have probably acquired the disc already. The remainder of this review, then, is directed toward listeners whose feelings about Penderecki are more equivocal.

For years Penderecki was the most highly publicized member of the Polish avant-garde, with works based on atonal or serial lines, unusual sonorities produced through untraditional means, and much use of cluster harmony. Then, in 1976 he shocked the music world with a violin concerto (No. 1) rooted in the angst-drenched rhetoric of Postromanticism. More works of this kind followed, to decidedly mixed critical response. More recently Penderecki has seemed to be attempting some sort of fusion of techniques from his early experimental approach with aspects of his later explorations into romanticism.

Penderecki was occupied with his Violin Concerto No. 2 from 1992 to 1995. Wolfram Schwinger’s program notes attempt to emphasize the differences between this concerto and its predecessor (No. 1 was “somber,” while No. 2 is “elegiac”; No. 1 was “dramatic, virile,” while No. 2 is “lyrical and feminine”). But, as someone who has not followed Penderecki’s stylistic development work by work, I was primarily struck by the similarities between the two: both are single-movement works just shy of 40 minutes in duration; both are unremittingly dead-serious in character.

Penderecki’s Violin Concerto No. 2 makes considerable demands on the listener’s concentration. There are no memorable “sound-bites” — tunes or rhythmic patterns or even gestures that make an immediate impact–nor are there obvious contrasts that might set off one segment from another. Just one continuous, unrelieved, brooding line of argument (subdivided into multiple levels of activity) for the listener to integrate into a coherent entity. On the other hand, the music is also consistently engrossing, without a moment that is inauthentic, inexpressive, or annoying in any way. It simply requires multiple hearings and intense concentration. More than that of any other composer, the work resembles the music of Allan Pettersson, in both its formal conception and its harmonic language; however, to a lesser extent, the violin concertos of Shostakovich, with their searing melodic lines, are also called to mind. Of course, there are strong affinities with Penderecki’s own recent works, especially with their consistently stark, brooding tone. Altogether, the work is highly recommended to those for whom the word “heavy” is not a term of derogation. Mutter’s performance is so technically flawless, so intensely committed, that one is hard-pressed to conceive of any room for improvement.

The discs’s filler is Bartók’s Sonata No. 2 for Violin and Piano — another work that doesn’t exactly charm one with its easy frivolity. But, seriously, anyone who enjoys the Penderecki will appreciate Anne-Sophie Mutter’s meticulous, sizzling-hot reading of Bartók’s hauntingly mysterious work, enhanced by Lambert Orkis’s impeccable contribution on the piano.

In summary, a release of the finest quality, recommended to the really serious listener.