It should be a source of shame to Philips that it has allowed its studio recording of this great operatic masterpiece by the man who is arguably the world's greatest living composer (marking his 80th birthday this year), to go out of print. Unfortunately, Arkivmuisc also has not seen fit to reissue it, and, with the recent appearance of this complete film version on DVD, any reissue is less likely than ever, which is why the rare used copies of the CD set always command a premium price when they surface.
In terms of quality, the studio recording has superior sound to this film version soundtrack. The vocal casts are identical with one exception: the secondary role of Jeanne d'Armagnac is sung by Joachim Hess in the Philips CD set and by Karl-Heinz Gerdesmann in the Arthaus DVD set. The video version is in many ways compelling, but also rather kitschy in places in an oh-so-late-60s style that now provokes mirth. (The opening scene, where Urbain Grandier seduces the nuns in what is supposed to be soft-core eroticism for that time, is a real hoot.) Overall, I think this is in some ways a score whose power actually comes across better by being heard rather than seen, leaving the listener to fill in his own visual impressions if he has the imagination to do so. However, this film version is very gripping and well-executed -- easily the best of the 1960s Hamburg Opera productions to be issued on DVD -- and will commend itself to anyone interested in this work.
The score itself draws upon every resource in Penderecki's sonorist arsenal of atonal aural effects -- microtones, gliding and sliding pitches, dense tone clusters, violent discords, use of exotic instruments (even an electric bass guitar), including an enormous battery of percussion. This is definitely not music for anyone whose stylistic boundaries are demarcated by Turandot, or even Peter Grimes. I myself am none too keen on many of Penderecki's early works (I simply cannot stand the famous Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima), but his greatest sonorist compositions before his much controverted "return to tonality" in 1976 -- particularly this opera and the St. Luke Passion -- are truly landmarks of 20th-century music which all lovers of classical music should encounter and wrestle with, even if in the end they cannot enjoy them.
As for its subject matter, it is indeed a harrowing parable of sin, punishment, and redemption, as the lascivious priest Grandier unexpectedly morphs into a Christlike figure who, in suffering torture and execution upon the false charge of facilitating demonic possession of a group of nuns, atones not for his own sins through his brutal trial, torture, and execution, but in so doing both bears and exposes the sins of the society in which he lives as being demonically possessed in its own way. Given both its context of creation (Communist-governed Poland) and the personal convictions of the composer (who had recently fervently re-embraced the Roman Catholic faith) I am also convinced (though I admit this is personal conjecture) that the opera is a heavily disguised, searing indictment of Communist totalitarianism, especially developments in several Communist countries during the 1950s and 1960s in which previous leaders suddenly fell from grace and became victims of the regimes they had helped to create and over which they had acted as rulers, in a debased and corrupted society increasingly based upon informers, orchestrated denunciations, show trials, and apparatchiks ready to turn upon one another in an instant to advance their own careers and/or preserve their own hides. Penderecki's compositions are to 20th-century music what the novels of Alexander Solzhenitsyn are to 20th-century literature -- great humanitarian protests to the dignity of man against the indignities of ideological tyranny -- and should be heard and studied accordingly.