Antoni Wit conducts Penderecki’s “St Luke Passion”

21 Sep 2013

Berliner Philharmoniker
Antoni Wit

Christiane Libor, Jarosław Bręk, Stephan Klemm, Daniel Olbrychski

  • Krzysztof Penderecki
    St Luke Passion – Passio et mors Domini nostri Jesu Christi secundum Lucam (83 min.)

    Christiane Libor Soprano, Jarosław Bręk Baritone, Stephan Klemm Bass, Daniel Olbrychski Speaker, Warsaw Philharmonic Choir, Henryk Wojnarowski Chorus Master, Boys’ and Men’s Choir at The Fryderyk Chopin University of Music in Warsaw, Krzysztof Kusiel-Moroz Chorus Master

  • free

    Antoni Wit in conversation with Krzysztof Polonek (16 min.)

Success can be dangerous – at least for “new” music. Krzysztof Penderecki, for example, came under fire because his works, more than those of most other contemporary composers, succeeded in finding a niche in international concert programmes. Like his Polish colleague Witold Lutosławski, the quest for an emotionally expressive style was and remains one of his central concerns: “As a composer”, he said in a 1987 Spiegel interview, “I reject the constantly increasing complexity of music.”

As a result, Penderecki, born in Dębica in 1933, furnished his frequently apocalyptic musical visions with the timelessness of tonal contexts. The most prominent example of this stylistic phase is his St Luke Passion (“Passio et mors Domini Nostri Jesu Christi secundum Lucam”), premiered on 30 March 1966 in Münster Cathedral, whose immense success brought genuine popularity to the then 32-year-old composer.

Antoni Wit, who along with his training as a conductor at one time also studied composition with Penderecki, is regarded as one of the leading authorities on his former teacher’s music. In the Philharmonie, together with an ensemble of internationally renowned soloists, he presents Penderecki’s deeply moving work, which concludes with an overwhelming choral build-up in radiant E major to express its message of “hope” and “redemption”.

Breakout from the Ivory Tower

Krzysztof Penderecki’s Luke Passion

Historical irony: the “most successful piece of New Music after 1945”, as the Neue Zürcher Zeitung was already describing Krzysztof Penderecki’s St. Luke Passion in 1969, did not receive its premiere in a prestigious concert hall or among a circle of knowledgeable specialists at an avant-garde festival. No, the triumph of this decidedly modern music, with its grinding dissonances, spectacular sound effects, studded with clusters and twelve-tone structures, occurred in a German house of prayer – in the bosom of the Catholic Church, enveloped, as it were, in incense: in a setting that heretofore had hardly contributed to the promotion of innovative sounds.

More than 1000 listeners turned their heads expectantly as the apostolic nuncio Corrado Bafile, personally representing Pope Paul VI, along with three bishops and the cathedral chapter, all in full vestments, entered the Cathedral of St. Paul in the German city of Münster on 30 March 1966. It was a Wednesday because, according to liturgical tradition, the 22nd and 23rd chapters of the Gospel of Luke were read on this day in Holy Week – the text on which the then 32-year-old Penderecki had based his choral setting. Over 70 journalists had come to attend the premiere of this new work, which WDR (West German Radio) had commissioned from the Polish avant-garde composer. The occasion was the 700th anniversary of the cathedral, which had been badly damaged in World War II. It was already remarkable that a composer from the socialist, officially atheist Eastern Bloc should have written a new setting of the Passion. And the performing forces suggested a decidedly ambitious venture: the score calls for three vocal soloists, a narrator, three mixed choruses and a two-part boys’ choir as well as an orchestra of late Romantic dimensions, including a huge percussion apparatus. No less visionary are the work’s ideological aspirations, as outlined by the composer on the morning of the premiere: “The Passion is the suffering and death of Christ, but it is also the suffering and death at Auschwitz, the tragic experience of mankind in the middle of the 20th century.”

The B–A–C–H motive: a musical cipher in Penderecki’s St. Luke Passion

Although this (by his own admission) “left-leaning Catholic” may also have based his compilation of Latin texts on the Gospel of Luke because of the narrative’s exceptional verbal force, his main reason was actually that it had not been set by Bach. Penderecki supplemented Luke’s report of the Passion with individual verses from the Gospel of John and with words from the Lamentations of Jeremiah, as well as psalm verses and portions of significant liturgical chant texts. In other respects, however, the Passio et mors Domini nostri Jesu Christi secundum Lucam, to give the work its full title, refers almost blatantly to Bach: in the two-part overall structure as well as in the constant alternation of dramatic narratives that advance the story with assigned roles and contemplative pauses for movements in the form of solo arias or a cappella choruses. Moreover Penderecki utilizes the B–A–C–H motive and its retrograde form as a permanent component of the work’s two central twelve-note rows, securing it a constant, almost overpowering presence in the most diverse guises. In the passacaglia “Popule meus” in the second part (No. 16), the symbolically charged four-note sequence and its variants develop into the ostinato of a continuous series of variations: the inexorable B–A–C–H is heard more than 100 times in the course of the movement. It naturally accommodates the sequence of two descending, sighing minor 2nds separated by a 3rd into the composition’s emotional content. This motive becomes a musical symbol of pain and suffering, but also of certainty of faith and the hope for a higher order of things.

A “contemporary setting of the timeless Passion story”

So much for the link with tradition. The effect of this provocative realization of the Passion events on its first listeners must have been almost frightening. Jesus before Pilate, the scene that forms the dramatic conclusion of the first part, begins with a study in clusters fashioned as a Klangfarbenmelodie, a melody of tonal colours. Intangible whimpering note bundles in the highest register migrate seamlessly though the instrument registers, plunging into the bass region and even involving the wordless singing of the chorus. The ensuing interrogation shows the agitated multitude in virtual pogrom disposition. Hard whip lashes and dry, noisy staccato from the other instrumental groups underlay the crowd’s wild and confused shouting. While Pilate’s expressive bass has to execute ever larger intervallic leaps in his growing desperation, the chorus with its dissonant cries of “Crucify him!” seems to be working itself up literally into bloodlust. In his report following the world premiere, Wolfram Schwinger, author of the standard monograph on Penderecki, observed that dismay could be read on many faces concerning the modernistic sounds – “a dismay, however, that was entirely appropriate to a contemporary setting of the timeless Passion story”.

“Spiritual admonition in a world without peace and wrought with guilt”

Viewed from a distance of 45 years, the story of the St. Luke Passion’searly reception reads like a tale from another era. The extent of the international interest in such a challenging New Music creation, far wider than traditional music-loving circles, is hardly imaginable today. Penderecki’s Passion was evidently also understood as manifesting an underlying disquiet – all superficial optimism accompanying the postwar economic boom notwithstanding – which, even in the West, was grounded in memories of the still recent sufferings of the world war, in political unrest and in the apocalyptic threat of nuclear annihilation. With the St. Luke Passion,Penderecki – the superbly gifted musician, who at the end of the 1950s had won all three top prizes at a composers competition in Poland with three anonymously submitted scores – had truly happened on “his subject”, as the German writer Ulrich Dibelius later commented, had found a means of expression which only he could formulate with such urgency and which so directly addressed his time: “Spiritual admonition in a world without peace and wrought with guilt by means of an expressively dramatic, emotionally roughened musical language”.

The composer’s unreserved identification with the message being conveyed must have come as a real surprise in the context of its time: since the beginning of the 1950s avant-garde composers had largely concerned themselves with the prohibitions in modern writing – with what, in a score serially organized in every parameter, was determined to be aesthetically unacceptable and strictly to be avoided. In so doing, however, the unconditional progressives had not infrequently produced emotionally neutral, excessively complicated and, moreover, completely hermetic pieces. In the St. Luke Passion, by contrast, there are no exquisitely polished subtleties, no l’art pour l’art: Penderecki’s score breaks out of the ivory tower of New Music with tremendous force and turns to preach to the whole of humanity. That they listen to him spellbound, even when he does not cajole their ear, is a confirmation of this composer’s remarkable rhetorical gift.

Anselm Cybinski

Translation: Richard Evidon

Antoni Wit studied conducting under Henryk Czyż and composition with Krzysztof Penderecki at the Academy of Music in Kraków. He also graduated in law from the city’s Jagiellonian University. After further studies with Nadia Boulanger in Paris, he became assistant to Witold Rowicki at the Warsaw Philharmonic. In 1971, Antoni Wit won second place at the International Herbert von Karajan Competition in Berlin and became Karajan’s assistant at the Salzburg Easter Festival. In the course of his career, the conductor has led the Pomeranian Philharmonic (1974 – 1977), the Orchestra and Choir of the Polish Radio and Television Corporation in Kraków (1977 – 1983), the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra in Katowice (1983 – 2000) and the Orquesta Filarmónica de Gran Canaria (1987 – 1992). Since January 2002, he has been managing and artistic director of the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra, and during the 2010/2011 season, he also took over the post of principal guest conductor of the Orquesta Sinfónica de Navarra in Pamplona. Antoni Wit, whose artistic work is documented in over 150 CDs, many of which have won awards, performs as a guest with internationally renowned orchestras in almost all the major music capitals of the world. He first stood at the conductor’s desk of Berliner Philharmoniker in April 1975 (as second conductor in a concert conducted by Witold Lutosławski), and most recently at the end of January 1988. In 2011, Antoni Wit, who is a professor of conducting at Warsaw’s Fryderyk Chopin University of Music, was chosen to sit on the honours committee of the Premio Príncipe de Viana (Navarra). In the autumn of 2012, he was chairman of the jury of the International Grzegorz-Fitelberg Conducting Competition in Katowice.

Christiane Libor studied singing at the Academy of Music Hanns Eisler Berlin where she obtained her concert diploma with honours in February 1999. The soprano completed her training in lieder classes with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. She also took lessons with Julia Varady and Brigitte Fassbaender. Christiane Libor took part in numerous opera productions and concerts while still a student. Most recently, she performed at the Alte Oper Frankfurt and at the Bayreuth Festival as Isabella in Wagner’s early opera Das Liebesverbot, as the Marschallin at Zurich Opera (Der Rosenkavalier), as well as Leonore (Fidelio) at Seattle Opera. At Oper Leipzig, the singer also sang the Wagner roles of Ada (Die Feen), Eva (Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg) and Senta (Der fliegende Holländer). Concert engagements have taken Christiane Libor throughout Europe, to the USA and to Israel and China, working with renowned orchestras and conductors such as Jaap van Zweden, Kurt Masur, David Zinman, Ton Koopman, Marc Minkowski and Ingo Metzmacher. This will be her first appearance in Berliner Philharmoniker concerts.

Jarosław Bręk was born in 1977 and began his singing career at the age of six as a member of the boys’ and men’s choir of the Poznań Philharmonic Orchestra. The baritone completed his vocal studies at the Warsaw Academy of Music with distinction. Today, the winner of several singing competitions appears in prestigious concert halls in Europe, Japan and Israel and works with conductors such as Agnieszka Duczmal, Jacek Kaspszyk, Michel Plasson, Antoni Wit and Alberto Zedda. Jarosław Bręk has performed at festivals such as Warsaw Autumn, the Sacrum Profanum Festival in Kraków and the Al Bustan Festival in Beirut. For Warsaw Chamber Opera, he has appeared as Count Almaviva (Le nozze di Figaro) and in the title role of Don Giovanni. At the Polish National Opera in Warsaw, his roles have included Don Profondo in Rossini's opera Il viaggio a Reims and the Abbot in Britten’s church parable Curlew River. With around 90 roles, oratorio is a particular focus of the singer’s extensive repertoire. Jarosław Bręk, who received his doctorate in 2010, teaches singing at the Music Academy in Poznań. This will be his first appearance in concerts of the Berliner Philharmoniker.

Stephan Klemm studied German language and literature and fine arts in Halle at the Martin Luther University before joining the University of Music & Theatre “Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy” Leipzig when he was 23. During his training, the bass was offered his first engagements at the Hans Otto Theater in Potsdam, after which he worked on a freelance basis. In September 2002, Stephen Klemm took up a permanent engagement at the Landestheater Coburg. Three years later, he was engaged to sing at the Staatstheater Nürnberg. Since 2008, the singer has again been working freelance, for example at the Weimar and the Mannheim Nationaltheater, the Munich National Theatre and the Anhaltisches Theater in Dessau. In addition to the great Wagner roles such as Hunding (Die Walküre), Daland (Der fliegende Holländer), King Henry (Lohengrin) and Hagen (Götterdämmerung), his repertoire includes Kecal (The Bartered Bride), King (The Love for Three Oranges) and Baculus (Der Wildschütz). The artist has also made many appearances both at home and abroad in oratorios and on the concert stage. Stephan Klemm now makes his debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker.

Daniel Olbrychski, born in Lowicz in 1945, is one of the most popular and busiest Polish actors of our day. He attended the then State Theatre School in Warsaw and appeared on Polish television while still a student. Since his debut in the 1964 film Wounded in the Forest (director: Janusz Nasfeter) he has appeared in some 150 feature films, including the Andrzej Wajda films The Ashes (1965), Everything for Sale (1969), Landscape after the Battle (1970), The Birch Wood (1971), The Promised Land (1975), Pan Tadeusz (1999) and The Revenge (2002). Daniel Olbrychski has also worked with Polish directors such as Jerzy Hoffman (Colonel Wolodyjowski, 1969; With Fire and Sword, 1999), Krzysztof Zanussi (The Structure of Crystals, 1969, Family Life, 1971, From a Far Country, 1981 ) and Krzysztof Kieślowski (The Decalogue, 1987). In addition, he was seen in productions by Volker Schlöndorff (The Tin Drum, 1979), Claude Lelouch (Les Uns et les Autres, 1981), Richard Dembo (Dangerous Moves, 1984), Margarethe von Trotta (Rosa Luxembourg, 1986) and Philip Kaufman (The Unbearable Lightness of Being, 1988). In the theatre, Daniel Olbrychski has made a name for himself for his portrayal of major Shakespeare roles. He has been appointed “Commandeur des Arts et Lettres”, is a recipient of the Order of Polonia Restituta, and has received the Gloria Artis medal from the Polish Ministry of Culture. These concerts mark his first appearance with the Berliner Philharmoniker.

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