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ClassicsOnline Home » PENDERECKI, K.: Utrenja (Warsaw Philharmonic, Wit)
Penderecki’s Utrenja was inspired by the Orthodox liturgy for Holy Saturday with its focus on
the lamentation of Christ’s death and the Easter Sunday morning service commemorating the
Resurrection. The composer remarks that ‘Utrenja is a combination of pure, a cappella vocal
writing and orchestral effects (for strings and percussion) very much connected with electronic
music’. Enthusiastically received by audiences, it stands beside his Polish Requiem (8.557386-87)
and St Luke Passion (8.557149) as one of the towering masterpieces of modern Polish music.
By David Denton
Krzysztof Penderecki (b. 1933)
Surprising though it may now seem, the appearance in 1962 of the Stabat Mater by Krysztof Penderecki caused something of a furore in avant-garde music circles. Coming soon after his radical orchestral works, the stark simplicity and emotional directness of the short choral piece led—not for the last time in the composer’s career—to accusations of his being reactionary and turning his back on musical progress. Over four decades on, however, the Stabat Mater can clearly be seen as
having initiated that consolidation and synthesis which Penderecki was to pursue, to varying degrees and on different levels, in both the choral and instrumental domains.
Equally worth bearing in mind is the composer’s stance, whether as a progressive composer within the conformist environment of post-Stalinist Poland or as a devout Catholic in a nominally atheist society. The Stabat Mater was among the first overt musical expressions of religious faith in Poland since the Second World War, and Penderecki did not hesitate to incorporate it into a fuller expression of faith when a suitable opportunity arose. In 1964 West German Radio commissioned a large-scale choral work to
commemorate the 700th anniversary of the consecration of Münster Cathedral: the Passio et mors Domini nostri Iesu Christi secundam Lucam (St Luke Passion) being the outcome [Naxos 8.557149]. Moreover, the sheer diversity of choral and orchestral techniques employed was a paradigm for the large-scale choral works that Penderecki has since composed.
Although they were conceived and written separately, the two parts of Penderecki’s Utrenja form a triptych with his St Luke Passion: one that deals with the events of the Paschal Triduum. Utrenja is inspired by the Orthodox liturgy of Holy Saturday, with its focus on the lamentation of Christ’s death and also of the Easter Sunday morning service which commemorates the Resurrection, and uses an Old Slavonic liturgical text without inhibition as to its traditional function and usage. Part One, Entombment (which is dedicated to the conductor Eugene Ormandy), was again commissioned by West German Radio. Its première took place in Altenberg on 8 April 1970 under Andrzej Markowski, followed by the Polish première in Kraków on 26 June 1971. The work is for three male voices, tenor, bass and basso profondo, which correspond, respectively, to the
rôles of chaplain, deacon and lector, and for two female voices, soprano and mezzo-soprano, who fulfil purely musical rôles. The soloists are supported by two choirs along with an orchestra rich in brass and percussion.
After the première, West German Radio promptly commissioned Penderecki to compose the second part of Utrenja. Thus Part Two, Resurrection, had its première on 28 May 1971 in Münster, again under Markowski. This performance was preceded by Entombment, and since then the two parts have generally (though not exclusively) been heard as a unity.
The first Polish performance of the complete Utrenja duly took place in Kraków on 16 September 1971 with Jerzy Katlewicz conducting. It should be noted at this point that, while the critical reception was at best equivocal, the response from Polish audiences in the aftermath of a governmental crackdown following the Gdansk shipyard riots of the previous year was tumultuous.
Part One commences with the Troparion, which starts with sepulchral intoning in the lowest registers of the chorus, gradually expanding in its harmonic complexity and also increasing in its expressive density. Jagged phrases emerge out of the texture before this fades out in the depths. Only with the Songs of Praise does the orchestra enter, percussion soon being joined by glowering brass then rushing strings and also woodwind. The mezzo-soprano now has a solo which is echoed by the basso profondo and chorus, the latter soon alighting on a harmonic cluster taking in responses from both of the soloists, underpinned by complex
choral textures. The tempo increases and the soloists utter fragmentary gestures over pizzicato strings and percussion, leading to a more restrained choral cluster. The soprano and mezzo-soprano now launch an impassioned build-up, before the male soloists see the
work’s longest section through to a close against sparse percussion.
The Irmos begins with disembodied choral writing that soon extends to spoken as well as to shouted gestures. This once again evolves into a swarming texture, though here with the strident sound of sopranos at its apex. Gradually dying down, it expires in a haze of breathless whispering and rustlings. Sombre brass chords introduce the Canon of Holy Saturday, then the bass launches a powerful monologue. This is contrasted, from the start of the Stichira, with the unison chanting of male voices such as grows steadily and also remorselessly into a subdued choral complex to which brass and woodwind contribute at the very top of their compass. There then follows a prolonged and resonant climax that draws on the entire complement of choral and orchestral resources, before leaving the chorus to die down in fragmented textures toward a sombre close, in the depths of the bass voices with which the work had
Part Two opens with The Gospel, which begins with a tocsin-like percussive outburst alternating with spoken and sung choral chants. Brass and bells then enter for a second Stichira, before the sound of unison chanting emerges in distinctive contrast. A powerful climax now ensues, from which the bass and basso profondo soon emerge in fervent imploring. The chorus responds with further unison chant, the two alternating on the way to a passage of unison female voices and plangent woodwind. The tenor has an impassioned solo against forceful percussion. There follows the Psalm with Troparion, which amalgamates the various facets from the proceeding two sections into a sustained outpouring where the deployment of the orchestra is heard at its
most resourceful. Choral chanting over aggressive percussion brings the work’s brass-capped climax, making way for a passage where soprano and mezzo are heard in fervent supplication.
The remainder of the work will be dominated by settings from the Passover Canon. The First and Third Songs are drawn upon in music which involves the soloists and the chorus in a powerful entreaty, intensified by the clamour of brass and percussion. Then, the Eighth Song is made the basis of a section in which the wind and percussion trade vivid gestures, the
choral writing being relatively subdued until the male soloists have assumed the foreground. Their contribution leads into the Kontakion, a relatively inward section that draws on all five soloists for the first and only time in the work. Equally serene choral chanting, soon juxtaposed with that of the basso profondo, informs the Ikos. Suddenly, Fragments drawn from the Passover Canon emerge with baleful immediacy, the orchestra then adding its weight to an
outburst in which the unison choral chanting resumes. A last massive tutti for voices and instruments, as if encapsulating the emotional extremes of the work, at length fades into silence.
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PENDERECKI, K.: Utrenja (Warsaw Philharmonic, Wit)