Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Penderecki's stirring new 'Polish Requiem': unabashedly sacred

Fifteen minutes before starting time there is still only a smattering of evening dresses and tuxedos in the vast Liederhalle. The Stuttgart audience expects world premieres as its just due; it makes no special fuss over them. A bass player warms up in the half-empty hall by bowing a difficult passage. The tympanist, with few eavesdroppers, practices one last time the acrobatics of a ''Dies Irae'' sequence.

Then the students file in to fill the gaps. A jeans-clad, red-shirted American slings his pack down in the third row, takes a seat, and asks what the concert is. He hitchhiked into town two hours ago on this September evening, saw the Krzysztof Penderecki poster, and joined the line for tickets. As a jazz student he once chose Penderecki as the contemporary composer he wanted to analyze; he liked his earlier atonal work more; his later, more romantic work less.

About these ads

The ''Polish Requiem''? Terrific. His brother is in Poland now, at a music festival. The Poles have a lot of music festivals, don't they, maybe as escapism?

The Wurttemberg State Theater Chorus and the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra flow in, somber in black. Then come the soloists with Mstislav Rostropovich, a man who more than most has earned the right to conduct requiems. The soprano is an American of Norwegian descent, the alto a German, the bass English, and the tenor a Pole who studied first in the Gdansk, where the now-outlawed Solidarity trade union was born.

Rostropovich and Penderecki have worked together before. The Russian - a Bach interpreter without peer on the cello, a one-time protector of Alexander Solzhenitsyn in the Soviet Union, a one-time child prodigy whose penniless family was thrown out on the street in 1930s Moscow and then sheltered by a total stranger in the stranger's single room so the young Mstislav could study at the conservatory - conducted the eight completed movements of the Polish Requiem in Washington last December. The Pole - a man whose own wrestling for artistry and morality has been no less importunate for being more vicarious - trusts Rostropovich with his music.

The linked radio stations announce the program in German, French, Danish, and Spanish. The cello and bass begin.

''Requiem aeternam, dona eis, Domine.'' Rostropovich conducts with his jutting chin as much as with his calibrated baton and his stabbing left forefinger. Then soprano and tenor open the Kyrie in duet - she sovereign, he intense. ''Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy.'' The prayer yields to ''Dies Irae'' - Day of Wrath - and a shriek from the chorus that echoes the crucifixion tableau in Penderecki's ''St. Luke Passion.''

Is there really such a cleft between his atonal beginnings and the more melodic probings in a stage Penderecki now describes as spent? His vocabulary of groans and cries, the pounding of cellos with the hand (here restrained), is profoundly romantic. It is less a dehumanization than a distillation - of yearning, of integrity in the face of tragedy. The vocal shriek merges into horns and basses and percussion. The sound climbs in pitch and volume, almost intolerably, then dissolves into a unison of cellos.

''Swiety Boze'' follows, an old Polish hymn as passacaglia: ''Great God, holy , omnipotent, and immortal God, have mercy on us.'' The soprano and alto continue, their voices vulnerable yet strong: ''Consider, faithful Jesus, that you came to earth for me.'' Maximilian Kolbe, the Franciscan who in 1941 chose his own death in Auschwitz to save a condemned Jew for another few weeks, is the man to whom this ''Recordare Jesu'' is dedicated.

About these ads

Penderecki wrote his tribute to his native Poland in segments. The opening Requiem and Kyrie came last, just a few weeks ago, along with the Lux Aeterna. The Lacrymosa came first, composed in 1980 on commission from Solidarity to inaugurate the Gdansk memorial to workers who protested price rises in 1970 and were shot. A poem by Nobel Prize winner Czeslaw Milosz is engraved on the memorial, a starkly modern cruciform spire that soars above the witnesses who gather at its base, but also sinks deep into the earth below them, the better to resist willful destruction by bulldozer or tank.

The memorial's theme is martyrdom, to be sure, but it is also dignity - the value Lech Walesa once insisted that all the welders and crane operators observe in their treatment of communist adversaries who came to the Lenin Shipyard to negotiate a charter of workers' rights.

''Most tearful of all days,'' the soprano sings in Solidarity's Lacrymosa. Rostropovich all but sings with her. The dissonances resolve suddenly into stunning tonic triads.

''Lamb of God, who bears the sin of the word, give them peace!'' the chorus pleads in eight voices, a cappella. This was the funeral music for Stefan Cardinal Wyszynski, friend of Penderecki and towering primate of the Polish Catholic Church in the postwar decades. It was on the night of Wyszynski's death in 1981 that Penderecki wrote the ''Agnus Dei.'' The orchestra rejoins the choir in transcendant ''Eternal light,'' the final building block in the work.

''Save me, Lord,'' soloists and chorus implore, then once more Recordare and Swiety Boze are heard in counterpoint. The music swells to final glorious ''Let them come over from death to life.''

It's an unabashedly, triumphantly sacred work. Today's secularized audience responds not in awed silence but in the applause of hearts that have been moved. Penderecki emerges from the audience, mounts the stage stairs, and embraces Rostropovich. Russian kisses Pole.

The Lacrymosa is performed often in Poland, it is said, without public announcement, but to packed houses. For all its intellectual rigor and its demands on performer and listener alike, it touches the untutored shipyard worker as much as it touches Stuttgart sophisticate or modern jazz student. It communicates, as Milosz's rarefied poetry communicates, by trusting the hearer to understand.

No, Penderecki's universal Polish music is no escape. Nor is it even a celebration of that martyrdom that the Poles have had far too much of in their history. Those would be too easy.

''One usually writes a requiem for others,'' the composer once said in explaining his choice of text for the requiem's finale. ''I wanted to insert a personal request, however: Lord, keep me by thee, for thee will I praise.''

''Avowal music,'' Penderecki called his work on another occasion. And so a listener experiences it. Purging, this requiem affirms life, and the sanctity of life.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.