Although he has returned to a neo-romantic compositional style, Kryzstof Penderecki (b. 1933) first became known as an avant-guarde modernist composer. His monumental "St. Luke Passion", first performed in 1966, has become, in its intensity and emotionality, one of the few overtly modernistic compositions to attract a wide audience. This work is heavily indebted to the passion music of Bach but in a style that is uniquely modern. Penderecki uses the letters of Bach's name, B-A-C-H, as the basis for many of the tone rows in the work.
The St Luke Passion is scored for a massive orchestra, including a large percussion section, chorus and boys chorus, soprano, baritone, and bass soloists, and an Evangelist. The work sets texts from the Gospel of St. Luke as well as from other biblical and liturgical sources.
The St. Luke Passion reflects the composer's own devout faith, but one does not need to be a believer to respond to this score. The music is almost entirely atonal. At only two points, at the end of the piece and it the conclusion of the climactic "stabat mater" does Penderecki resolve the music into a chord in the major key. Virtually the entire work is sad and somber. Within its frame, their is a great diversity of music. Penderecki uses the form of ancient chants, in the chorus singing a capella in hushed tones. In portions of the work, such as the scene before Pilate (track no 13) or the scene where Jesus is mocked on the cross (track no 22) the chorus hisses and shouts in a strong cacophony of sound. The soloists have moments of almost mystical intensity. And the spoken part of the Evangelist alternates effectively with the choral and solo passages. The music makes frequent use of a gong, which reminded me of the extensive use of that instrument in the more accessible music of the American composer, Alan Hovhaness.
This recording of the St Luke Passion dates from 2004 and received a deserved rating of 10/10 on Classics Today. Antoni Wit conducts the Warsaw National Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra and the Warsaw Boys Choir. The recording is part of a continuing series of Penderecki's major works on the budget-priced Naxos label. It makes a compelling case for this passionate music. The CD includes detailed liner notes and the complete Latin text and translation of the Passion. Izabella Klosinaska is especially impressive in her soprano solos.
The St Luke Passion opens with an expansive prayer, set for organ, orchestra and large chorus. It follows, in Part I with a series of recitifs, solos, and choruses of the events leading to the arrest of Jesus. The admonition "Jerusalem, Jerusalem turn again to thy God" is repeated twice, the first time for chorus the second time for soprano solo.
The second and longer portion of the work describes the Crucifiction in anguished music with frenetic writing for the chorus. The climactic moments of the work include the long chorus "Popule meus" (track 16), the "Stabat mater" (track 24) which incorporates Penderecki's setting of this text in 1962, and the final chorus (track 27) which ends in the major key with the words Into thy hands I commend my spirit/ for thou hast redeemed me, O Lord, thou God of truth."
The St. Luke Passion is difficult music with an emotional force that cannot be denied. Listeners who are willing to see that modernistic music can have an almost visceral appeal will love this music of passion and religious devotion.
Total Time: 76:24