Saturday, March 17, 2012

Penderecki/Greenwood: Two composers with a shared vision

Krzysztof Penderecki/Jonny Greenwood
Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima / Popcorn Superhet Receiver
Aukso Orchestra; Krzysztof Penderecki,
Marek Mos, conductors


It’s an interesting concept for a concert – and an album. Bring together composers of two different generations, with the younger being deeply influenced by the older and present their music side-by-side.

In this case, the older composer is Krzysztof Penderecki, an acknowledged master in the field of classical music. The younger is Jonny Greenwood, lead guitarist of Radiohead.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking of Greenwood as just another rocker dabbling in classical for a little artistic cred. He’s a trained multi-instrumentalist who is very familiar with the classical music world, and Penderecki’s music in particular.

The disc features Penderecki’s classic Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima. The Aukso Orchestra, conducted by the composer, gives the work a somewhat subdued reading. Threnody can be a very disturbing and unsettling work. This contemplative performance suggests that the horrors, though not forgotten, happened a long time ago.

Popcorn Superhet Receiver by Greenwood follows. The work owes its direct inspiration to the sound of shortwave radio, a mixture of signal and background hiss. At the same time, one can hear a similarity to Penderecki’s Threnody. In fact, Threnody seamlessly leads directly into Popcorn, almost as if the two compositions were part of a larger work.

Polymorphia, though written in 1961, still sounds like a work that pushes the limits of both the instruments and the audience. Penderecki’s concerned with clouds of sound, and he subtly changes them throughout the work. Although there’s no discernible melody, the underlying logic of the work is clear enough, and Polymorphia has a forward motion that arrives at an inevitable climax (although the listener might be hard-pressed to explain how it got there).

Greenwood’s 48 Responses to Polymorphia takes the elements of Penderecki’s work and breaks them into smaller components that get individual examination. It’s a perfect companion piece to Polymorphia. Yes, there are some highly rhythmic sections that have the vitality of rock, but there’s not a trivial gesture anywhere to be found. This is a well-constructed, serious piece of music that takes Penderecki’s exploration of sound and goes even further with it.

This release is a fascinating blend of two composers whose styles do more than complement each other. The album create a coherent soundscape that takes the listener farther than any of the works do individually.

Highly recommended for those with a thirst for audio adventure.

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