Penderecki Metamorphosen


Adam Mickiewicz Institute and present Penderecki 's Garden.


'Metamorphosen' Penderecki's second Violin Concerto was written for the German violinist Anne Sophie Mutter between 1992 and 1995.


Drawing on the contrast between this work and the first Violin Concerto, which was premiered by Isaac Stern in 1977 and contextualising 'Metamorphosen' with the second Violin Sonata and 'La follia', this podcast will explore a meeting of musical minds in one of the most striking works for violin and Orchestra of the late 20th century.


40-year access all areas personal friendship between contemporaries Johannes Brahms and Josef Joachim  that led to Brahms' violin Concerto to Czajkowski writing his on holiday with his 'dedicati', his composition pupil and maybe also lover Josef [inaudible 00:01:51]  to Carl Nielsen, writing his for his son in law Emil Tilmany, to second Viennese school loving Louis Krasner persuading Berg to write him one what became to the memory of an angel after being blown away by Berg's darkly brutal opera 'Wozzeck'.


To the cross generational meeting of minds between Bela Bartok and his monumental second violin Concerto's dedicati Sultan Cekeley, 20 years his junior. To the close collaborative friendship between Karol Szymanowski and the dedicate of his own to Paweł Kochański.


The Concerto relationship between a composer and their soloist is both a delicate and a mysterious thing and one for which there is no cookie cutter template. Personal friendships between contemporaries, lovers, pupils, family even, admiring, professional only meetings of minds - the violin Concerto has seen it all. And indeed, there are as many contrast as there are similarities between Penderecki's own two violin Concerto relationships.


So let's begin with Violin Concerto number one.


Written between 1974 and 1976. This was Penderecki's second work for violin and Orchestra, following his virtuosically dashing 'Capricio' of 1967. It was a Commission from the Basel Allgemeine Musikgesellschaft and premiered on the 27 April that year in Basel, by the Basel Symphony Orchestra under Moshe Atzmon. Its soloist and dedicati was the American violinist Isaac Stern.


This was the first time that Penderecki and Stern had worked together, and they couldn't have represented a more complementary meeting of musical hearts and minds. Penderecki, a violinist himself in his youth, known for his music's potent expressiveness and for using its emotional directness and his international prominence to speak for the victimised and oppressed and even to improve relationships with countries. Then Stern, just 13 years his senior and as much an activist as a performer. By 1974 he'd already saved New York's Carnegie Hall from demolition and become the first American to tour the USSR.


He also, though, saw eye to eye with Penderecki on Soviet repression. In 1967, he'd refused to return to the USSR, until the Soviet regime allowed artists to enter and leave the country freely.


Musically, meanwhile, Stern was a determined devote of 20th century and new music, commissioning countless works, given the American premieres of many more and championing works such as the Bergen Stravinsky Concertos that weren't a natural fit for conservative musical tastes. At the same time, he loved tradition and expression above display. 'What gives me happiness and satisfaction', he said, 'is to play the kind of music that solves all human problems'. The Concerto Penderecki consequently wrote for Stern, would come to represent a very audible and decisive turning point in his musical language.


At 40 minutes in length, it was first of all his most extensive instrumental work to date. Structurally, it's a single movement work cast in free Sonata form.


What you're most hearing, though, is the degree to which the concerto's  material is all derived from its opening material. In other words, it's 40 minutes of metamorphosis. Then the equally audible feature is its decisive shift away from the avantgarde. Cluster chords are gone. So is anything sounding more like a sound effect than musical notes, and consequently there's no more graphic notation. Instead, it's a sound clearly steeped in the romantic tradition from Beethoven to Berg, an approach that Stern proved to be the perfect partner for. Forthcoming and helpful with his advice from the start while relishing Penderecki's violinist knowledge of the existing repertoire. In practise, what that means is a tonal language, highly lyrical and melodic, full of postvalgnarian chromaticism, also full of musical references.


Constantly you'll find yourself hearing snatched suggestions of past composers, although with Penderecki's treatment of the melodic material, it's a constantly shifting landscape. So by the time you've worked out what one bit is reminding you of, the music is probably already smoothly metamorphosed on. Take this section about five and a half minutes in, which opens with a whisper of Bartok.


And then closes shortly afterwards with a suggestion of the prominent five note timpity rhythm in Beethoven's Concerto.


As those clips also illustrate, Penderecki didn't abandon his trademark dark melancholy with this New Romantic with a capital 'R' style. Works such as 'Threnody' and 'Polymorphia' will immense in their sensibility, disfiling concerto's darkness was simply more recognisably Slavic. Stern was thrilled with it and threw himself into its performance. Penderecki's biographer Wolfram Schwinger describes how chatting to Stern after the Basel premiere, Stern informed him that he believed he had just given the first performance of the most important violin Concerto since Alban Berg, account of its expressiveness and instrumental lyricism. After what Penderecki thought of Stern let's fast forward to the following year, when Stern gave the New York premiere, when, as related by the New York Times, 'a happy looking Penderecki joined him on stage after the performance and rewarded him with  'A juicy kiss on the forehead'.


As for the critics, they were divided. Some clearly didn't know what to make of this stylistic departure, with some seeing it as a retrograde step to which Penderecki [inaudible 00:08:39]  response was: 'We can't still use old forms to write new music'


Other critics, though, loved it. In 1980 'Grammaphone' magazine's William Mann chose Stern's recording of it with the Minnesota Orchestra for his end of the year critic's choice writing: 'Penderecki's violin Concerto surprised everyone by its apparently retrograde move from vanguard techniques to something more like traditional symphonic music.


I did find it very eloquent, a sort of abstract tragedy, and it is played with virtuosity and real fervour by Isaac Stern and the Minnesota. Violinists liked it, too. When in 1979, Salvatore Arcado prepared to perform it with Penderecki, his own admiring perspective on it was: 'It's difficult but intelligently written for the instrument as the composer was himself a violinist. There's nothing aleatoric in it. It might be compared to the Berg, another favourite of mine'.


So that was the first violin Concerto and violin Concerto relationship. The seats of the second one was sewn almost immediately afterwards, when in 1978, a young 14 year old German violinist exploded onto the scene performing Mozart Concertos with Herbert Von Karajan -  Anne Sophie Mutter.


Penderecki was captivated and began to follow her concerts. Describing his first impressions  years later, he remembered: 'Such a child standing there with a violin and playing like a grownup had actually better. There was something special about her from the outset'.


And although Penderecki couldn't have known it at that stage, Mutter was the perfect collaborator for him. Not least because as her career progressed, she would turn out to be just as determined a champion of new music as Isaac Stern was, but there were further qualities, too. First of all, her trademark - rich, dark velvety sound was a wonderful fit for Penderecki's music's dark melancholy.


Secondly, because Mutter has been as famed throughout her career for her flawless technique as she has been for interpretations, so for a violinist composer who had always been fascinated in pushing string instruments in particular to the limits of technique, Mutter was a gift. Especially as she welcomed such challenges. Perhaps the most extreme example of Penderecki pushing her to the limits was the virtuosic solo violin piece he wrote for her in 2013. 'La follia', a baroque reminiscent set of virtuoso variations on a Saraband theme, introduced first in Pizzicato, which presented a steady stream of fingertwisting technical challenges.


In an onstage conversation the two of them had a few years after 'La Follia's composition Mutter commented: 'There were a few intervals which not only could I not play, but which I think was simply unplayable. It wasn't just the sheer speed required. I remember thinking to myself - yes, he is a violinist who wants to give his colleagues a difficult score, a real brain teaser. And so I just have to give it a go. And it's very important to me as a player, even if a composer asks, which happens very rarely that I never say, <oh, no, that doesn't work>, or < I don't like this> or <That's impossible>. We're all interested in continually improving the instrument's technical potential, lifting it to a new level. And that can only happen if you write almost without thinking of the consequences, so to speak'.


As Richard Strauss said to the horn player: 'I write it. You play it. That's true here, too. You write it. I try to play it.' To which Penderecki responded:  'I don't think there's anything you can't play.'


Back to the 1980s, though, Anne Mutter quickly became as captivated by what she heard from this composer 30 years her senior as he was hearing from her. She described attending the premiere of his 'Polish Requiem' in Stuttgart in 1984 and the 'Recordare' in particular having such a deep effect on her to be a life changing experience, in fact, that she had an urgent desire for him to compose a Concerto for her.


Years later, Mutter articulated exactly what it was about his music's expression that captivated her. 'There's a kind of sadness in so much of Penderecki's music', she explained. 'His works often stand as monuments to critical moments of history. They have a great ability to permeate our consciousness and really change us, as well as being a beautiful intellectual exercise. I find it fascinating that Penderecki is able to capture both these qualities in his work.'


In 1988, the two of them worked together for the first time. Penderecki conducting her in Prokofiew's Violin Concerto number one, and soon afterwards Mutter got her Concerto from him. Commissioned by the Mitteldeutscher Rundfunk Leipzig. It was written between 1992 and premiered by Mutter and the Orchestra under Maris Janssens on the 24 June 1995 at the Leipzig Gewandhaus. Compositionally there's much to link it to the First Violin Concerto. Once more, a single multi sectioned large movement, 40 minutes in length. Tonal, highly lyrical, highly melodic, Romantic with a capital 'R', very much tapped into the Violin Concerto's heritage, 'A virtuoso amalgam of the most varied styles', as Mutter put it herself. Although this time with the references perhaps a little more cloaked.


Emotionally, meanwhile, it has Penderecki's trademark expressiveness. Also his characteristic dark melancholy and while it's not expressly programmatic beyond Penderecki having said that, as he wrote it, he imagined he was moving in a vast labyrinth - it has that same feel as so much of his work, of there being perhaps an unnamed, painful man made subtext to it all. As for its melodic material, the title says it all. That idea of motivic metamorphosis we heard in the first Concerto is now such an integral feature that it became the obvious title. Decided after its composition as Penderecki emphasised: 'It was only when I'd almost finished it that I decided I shouldn't just call it Second Violin Concerto', he said.


'The concept of change is key to this work, and that gave me the idea for the title'.


So let's dive in. And when the first Concerto opens with timpani and the lowest depths of the strings, 'Metamorphosen' enters with violins alone in their lowest registers, playing repeated unison A's in groups of four coloured on the beat by darkly shimmering 'TamTam' strokes.


Forte, Stern, steady and determined. The impression is of a swinging pendulum. That classic metaphor for change being the one predictable aspect of life, and this pendulum swing and its variations are going to appear time and time again across the work, binding it together in exactly the same way as, say Beethoven's five note timpani tabs are everywhere across his filing Concerto. Then movement, although not much just yet, no change in rhythmic pattern or speed, but now the four note phrase has become five. A chromatic rise from that 'A' up to a 'C', then dropping back to an 'A'. At first unison, then divided into sections, joined by the lower strings and thus producing chains of semitone clashes.


And rather than the addition of further instrumental sections, increasing the volume, it instead gradually drops all the way down to pianissimo until finally, an ominous timpani roll heralds the arrival of the darkly subdued solo violin, beginning with a pedal note on low 'A'. Before rising up that same chromatic trajectory already set out before her by her violinist colleagues, while adding a metamorphosis of her own, bringing a dotted figure to its steadily swinging rhythmic pattern. Then not stopping but climbing ultimately to the top of her register.


And often across the work, you'll find the violin high up on a floating, fragile line with a barely there accompliment. But rather giving you a blow by blow account from here on, we'll just helicopter in now on a few moments worth appreciating. For instance, the way Penderecki then allows his violas to develop the rising chromatic theme further joined by other strings in woodwind, then by the soloist through an urgent contrapuntal section, tossing the newly tensely sharp motive backwards and forwards like echoes, the tension at fever pitch.


By the way, Penderecki's beloved Bruckner, first discovered when he arrived to live and work in Germany after his 'St. Luke Passion' success is everywhere. In his ability to grow and maintain a prolonged climax and then at its destination point to only slightly alleviate the tension before building it up again. Then, while Penderecki may no longer be writing avantgarde sounds, he's still using the same tensionmaking violinistic tricks he first explored in works such as 'Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima'. Tricks such as high trills double stops, sounding like trembles.


Or to quickly jump briefly further ahead, the sudden flurry of sinister upwards 'col legno'  scampers from the orchestral strings, just before the soloist explodes into the scherzando, 'col legno' being when the strings are struck, not with the hair of the bow, but with the wood.


His atmospheric writing for percussion and his dramatic outbursts are also still very much in the mix. Here's an ear grabbing percussion moment from the first section of the Concerto.


And then a short while later, one of the concerto's most achingly lyrically melancholic sections, where the violinist muses pensively with a dark clarinet before rising suddenly alarmed and alone towards an impassioned outburst.


Soon afterwards, the opening pendulum swing motif makes a particularly dramatic return, back with unison violins in their original rhythm but upping the ante, not just with tubular bells now joining the 'Tam Tam', but also sitting a tone higher, on 'B'. [inaudible 00:23:01]  moving closer, perhaps. The noose tightening. And soon after [inaudible 00:23:06]  return markedly higher again with those pendulum minims on 'E' flat. 


The soloist, however, is no victim in all this. It may be alarmed, but it's also defiant, strong and intensely virtuosic, demanding every ounce of Mutter's, technical command and dramatic capacity. Take the vivacious section later, where the soloist moves from having to produce echo effects to writing, leaping at speed around the instruments, switching between bowed writing and pizzacato.


As for homages, one of the clearest homages to other composers is to found in the scherzando, already briefly mentioned, where the ghost of Szostakowicz looms gloriously large over its spikeliest cervic, fiercely contrapuntal writing, replete with shrill woodwind and doom laden brass. The violin is being put through its virtuosic paces all the while.


Penderecki also doffs his cup admiringly to the virtuoso violinist composer connected to so many of the composers of violin repertoire staples - Hungarian virtuoso Josef Joachim. Jumped to the fiercely demanding solo cadenza at the end of the scherzando, and midway through its technical, somersault you can hear clear as a bell, an echo of the double stops he penned himself for the Concerto Brahms wrote for him.


The final Andante Con Moto section brings things to a solemnly electrifying conclusion. A doom laden Szostakowicz shout, stabbing brass, heavy tooty jabs, a discordant deep scrunch followed by silence. Then a ghostly solo violin passage over hushed, bass pedal and timpani that has quite rightly been analogized as picking one's way across a graveyard or recently silenced battlefield. Then joined by translucent woodwind over wide textured scoring that again channel Szostakowicz as their sinister countermelody wraps its way around the violin to the shimmer of percussion.


One particularly heartbreaking moment, if you know your violin concerti is when the soloist's rising line suggests, just for the briefest of moments, that it might go the same way as a similar anticipatory passage in the first movement of the Nielsen Concerto, which tips at its conclusion over into just utter warmth and peace. But here no. Penderecki's line continues as a bleak, finely spun thread, the violin dipping downwards again, then up, as if wrestling against its fate as the woodwind curl around its straining lyrical lines. Here's the Nielsen


Then here's Penderecki.


Who knows? Perhaps that reference is just pure fantasy. What isn't fantasy, though it's a combination of beauty, peerless scoring, Rimski-Korsakow's  awareness of instrumental colours and sense of thronotic tragedy over the concerto's final two minutes. A duet between soloist and woodily dark core anglais, one of Sibelius's favourites when he wanted to suggest dark magic incidentally.


Then, as the soloist rises to hold its final silvery thread of a note, the sense of silence is deafening. It's impossible not to be reminded of the similar fragile line rising into the heavens that closes Berg's Concerto to the memory of an angel, dedicated to an 18 year old girl who had recently died from polio. Even though it must be emphasised. This is all also recognisably Penderecki, both in its language and in its achingly direct expression.


No wonder, years later, Mutter commented: 'Few composers have demonstrated so many different colours and contradictions through their compositions. For me, this work is a physical and psychological challenge that requires my best technical skills, yet gives me tremendous musical fulfilment'.


Back in 1995, though, the work had a further emotional element for her because as she studied it, her husband was battling lung cancer, and just a few weeks after the premiere, he died. Years later in 2017, as Mutter and Penderecki talked together on stage to mark Panderski's 85th birthday, she said to him: 'I found the title particularly moving. This Concerto really helped me understand and perhaps also process what happens when <the here and now> is transformed into a different dimension'. So <Metamorphosen> has a very special place in my life, not only because it's a tremendously profound work, but because it particularly resonated with me, given my personal circumstances at the time. And I think when I study your works, which I've admired for so many decades, above and beyond, of course, their compositional genius, it's their emotional depth that moves me so deeply - as a listener and as a performer.'


When it's been said a few times that actions speak louder in words, though perhaps Mutter's greatest affirmation of this work is that she went on to perform it around the world, recorded it with Penderecki in 1997, and in 2018 toured it around China with him, along with 'La Follia' to mark his 85th birthday, at which point she articulated further praise and insights:


'I hadn't played <Metamorphosen> for several years before coming back to it at the end of 2017', she commented for  the Strad magazine. 'It was quite challenging to bring it back. Technically speaking, Penderecki is a former violinist and likes to give the soloist a few difficult moments, but also there are so many elements in the scores that require another look. It's crafted with such symmetry and care. You'll see more and more things in this score that you might have missed the first time around. It was as if I were as a goldfish with a three second memory. As I kept on finding things in front of me that made me excited all over again. It's very important to keep that sense of wonder, as well as a sense of curiosity. It's essential for all players, I think, to be able to be open to new perspectives like that. So I'm very grateful to have had a chance to return to this piece and to bring it back to my repertoire'.


Inevitably, when the musical bond was so strong, 'Metamorphosen' was followed by further works for Mutter. The aforementioned Solo violin finger twister 'La Follia'. But before that two further works. First in 1999, the second violin Sonata, featuring another Szostakowiczesque scherzo and with an extended nocturnlike Largo sitting at its centre as its heart.


Mutter has described the Sonata as a work whose emotional discourse leaves her and the pianist shattered. It also constitutes some of the finest writing of Penderecki's career. As one critic wrote: 'This new five movement work, with its depth of thought and expressive power, demonstrates the masterful skill of the experienced composer'. A duo Concertante followed in 2010. This was commissioned by the Anne Sophie Mutter Foundation for the Encouragement of talented young string players, and was jointly dedicated to and premiered in Hanover by Mutter and her scholarship holder, double bassist Roman Pat Culo.


Once more, this works of Penderecki reach into the past to produce something new. While equally true to form, pushing his string players to the limits of their interpretational and technical powers.


It also represented a much needed virtuoso addition to the 21st century double bass repertoire.


Time and time again, though, when you hear Mutter talking about or to Penderecki, the element of his music she always comes back to is its soul. The soul she first heard in 1984, which perminates the violin Concerto written for her as her husband near the end of his terminal illness and which equally leaves her shattered at the end of the second Sonata. In one of the most beautiful compliments she ever paid to this soul, she described: 'There is humanity in his music, not just technique. His music makes us more human'.


Following Penderecki's death in March 2020, Mutter wrote a heartfelt statement on her Facebook page describing her sense of loss. But it's undoubtedly in his music that she will have found solace.


Perhaps the most touching moment of that aforementioned 85th birthday conversation of theirs was when to Penderecki's soft, silent, modest acknowledgement, she told him: 'I find that one notices from your music that it's not an occasional piece that's very professionally written. No, it involves your lifeblood. It's that that remains too, I believe. Even when you're gone, you'll still be among us'.


This episode of Penderecki's Garden podcasts was hosted by me - Charlotte Gardner. The show is brought to you by, the flagship brand of the Adam Mickiewicz Institute, financed by the Ministry of Culture, National Heritage and Sport of the Republic of Poland, as part of the multi-annual programme 'Niepodległa' 2017 to 2022. Remember to subscribe and help us to promote the show by telling your friends about it. And if you would like to listen to more records of Christoph Penderecki or read interesting facts about his life and work, take a walk in Digital