And the rocks shed tears: about not one Plymorphia by Krzysztof Penderecki on its 60th anniversary

The program of this concert looked like that:

K. Penderecki Polymorphia
B. Martinů Concert G-dur on flute, violin and orchestra H. 252
C. Saint-Saëns La muse et le poète op. 132
L. van Beethoven I Symfonia C-dur op. 21

Basing on my experience, I treated the list above according to Tomek Gwinciński’s words, (which I heard on a similar occasion), so adequate that I remembered them well. And I have to admit that they’ve found confirmation in the reality so many times, I took this saying as my own. In consequence, today it is my modus operandi when live shows are concerned.

It goes: do not mix cocaine with heroin.

Applying these words to the concert program started a process similar to distillation. As a result, we got distillate and a residue:

K. Penderecki Polymorphia
B. Martinů Concert G-dur on flute, violin and orchestra H. 252
C. Saint-Saëns La muse et le poète op. 132
L. van Beethoven I Symfonia C-dur op. 21

So, how well Wrocław Orchestra conducted by Jerzy Maksymiuk has handled the masterpiece celebrating its 60th birthday this year? I want the answer to be clear, so I am going to use two examples from disciplines other than music.

1) I think that the majority of readers have played table tennis even once. But even when someone did not, it is easy to imagine he is holding a blade at a certain angle. Some people may grab a knife similarly when they are cutting cucumbers. Interestingly, during both those actions, the hand makes a similar move (thus, maybe through the kitchen door we have found out why the table tennis move is called undercut). During an exchange, there come the times when one has to hit the blade into the table because only that way he shoots a good ball. And if that someone does not do it out of fear of damaging the blade or an expensive rubber, he will inevitably lose a point. And in general, if that person does not overcome his fear, he will never get even near a professional game style. 

2) Maria Kalota-Szymańska wrote an article in memory of Henryk Elzenberg, titled Light in the darkness, where she recall: The Professor told me he can say nothing about my capabilities in the poetry field because I am too well-mannered which does not give too much hope of achievements in this particular field.

Those two problems combined into something I would call fearful restraint are the very core of my problems with the Wrocław Orchestra’s version of Polymorphia. The majority of the musicians gathered on the NFM stage were too well-mannered. And most probably also afraid for their instruments after performing Polymorphia. 

Previously mentioned Henryk Elzenberg noted: who thinks about art, should be indifferent towards life at the same moment. Treated as an axiological imperative, these words fit Polymorphia like the key fits the lock. This piece puts the musician in a crossroads-like situation: all or nothing.

Forgetting any caution is a sine qua non condition to make the performance successful – else all your effort goes to nothing. And unfortunately, that is what happened that evening in Wrocław. There was almost none of – so precious – arrogant and rowdy tendencies and what was left of it disappeared in stiffness, distance, and playing it safe with a chin held high. 

But gentle refraining from jerking and bending the strings and replacing it with patting and stroking is one thing. And the inability to expand proper expression when the need arises is something completely different. I have even suspected two of the contrabasses to make a go for a kind of collision, but when I have compared their register to the unforgiving force of Sławek Janicki (which came in mind naturally), those efforts remind me of those famous National Geographic footage of newborn giraffe taking its first steps on shaking legs. Right, I can hear those shouts of objection as a) Sławek Janicki plays only free improvised music; b) if he sits on the NFM stage and plays Polymorphia, he would not be able to pull it off. 

OK, but I am sure when he reads about musicians being afraid for an instrument while playing it, he will be surprised and find it – I guess – amusing. But, fine. To not reach too far, the Orchestra’s lack of spirit can be easily shown when analyzed along with other classical musicians. 

Here is an example. On the 9th of September 2020, I finally made it to The Krzysztof Penderecki European Centre of Music in Lutosławice, where Meccore String Quartet performed first and second string quartet. Here, as at the NFM concert, I was sitting in the first row. In Wrocław my knees were touching the brink of the stage, in Lutosławice the stage is a bit further from the chairs. Meccore – obviously – consists of four musicians but even so few (compared to the many of the orchestra’s) placed further away from me, managed to create with their culminations of the II string quartet a feeling of wind blowing into my face from their instruments. On the NFM stage, nothing similar happened. That is what three lions and a lioness look like as opposed to a flock of sheep. Meccore threw themselves on those pieces and managed to bear the tension till the very end. And although I heard more smooth performances, their version stands out because of their patient nabbing at the form and wide dynamic amplitudes they have created.  

I have mentioned – unintentionally – the smoothness of performance. Let me ask then, whether I could hear any kind of performers’ oneness in Wrocław? No. During the performative process, the musicians have constructed Polymorphia from very small and not exactly matching elements. If you ever tried to build something combining Lego with Cobi bricks, you know how those barely visible differences make rising higher constructions impossible. The same in music. In the end, there was no dramaturgy in this performance. 

The careful reader should ask: maybe no matter how well the composition was performed, the effect would not be satisfactory, because the piece itself is the problem and the whole passionate argument against the orchestra is futile? Maybe Polymorphia is only a historical curiosity that shows us something was possible over half of the century ago. And other than that, there is nothing to discuss as it is a petrified mummy not living music? To solve this mystery, we have to dissect Polymorphia versions available on records.

The record at the moment most popular on the market (Sonoristic Penderecki by Penderecki) is the worst. If one wanted to find an argument to confirm mentioned doubts – this is it. It is a uniform inertion, pretty and overly safe. I was not surprised: the album was recorded in 2018, and around that time, I have heard Polish Radio National Symphonic Orchestra performing early works of Penderecki, and they have sounded just the same. Like they would do everything to play these pieces in quasi Mozart-like way. It is not the conductor’s (in one case Penderecki itself) fault either. During a concert in Warsaw, there were four conductors on stage, and not one could make NOSPR (Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra) perform any better.

So, we need to go back in time and find earlier records: Krzysztof Penderecki / Jonny Greenwood. And there, from the very first seconds, we can hear the difference. For sure, these musicians were genuinely engaged in the performance and thus became a community of a sort. Aukso Orchestra wins lodgement after lodgement and has its style, and the production points out the multiple paths of Polymorphia as the listener focus frequently changes partners. Alas, this characteristic feature is also a flaw – the bass tones are overly exposed, which at first is stunning (and exciting), but you do not have to wait too long to realize the high tones sound like bugs, flies, or mosquitoes. In postproduction, the natural timbre of the orchestra has been too polished out and made sound modern, and the culminations lack vehemence. Thus, I can neither reject nor accept this interpretation.

Right, when one record was repulsive, and second – despite its benefits – upheld the doubts, we have to search further in the past. The performances conducted by Czyż (Penderecki volume I), Slatkin (Music excerpts from The Exorcist), and Markowski (Penderecki – Markowski Awangarda) all make you check whether your headphones big jack sits as it should and turn the volume regulating knob to make sure your player is working. It reminds me of admiring Beksiński or Malczewski paintings through the fog or stained glass. Fortunately, the level of disruption is not the same in every case, but I had to disclose the Exorcist soundtrack. The timbre is insufficiently saturated, the sound is not selective enough, and its parameters are off. It all makes music play somewhere far away. Although it is still better than Sonoristic Penderecki because despite mentioned technical unpleasantness, it shows – partially, but it is evident enough – the potential of Polymorphia ATMOSPHERE.

It is even better with Penderecki-Markowski: Awangarda record. Here is why. Although the mere word mastering (used in the context of remasters supposedly giving old records new life) makes me cringe, there are people who – when I see their names beside the term – change my usual attitude into pure joy. Among those people – due to the Penderecki-Markowski: Awangarda mastering – is Anna Wojtych. The final effect of her work is impressive. You can easily make your mind confronting Anaklasis from Awangarda with Anaklasis recorded on Kosmogonia published by Cold Spring Records. It is a CD edition of Philips vinyl from 1974. There should be an award for those who guess that on those two records is the same performance. The difference is enormous. I could not listen to this record (the quality is too poor) and out of hopelessness started to read the booklet where I have found the conductor’s name: Markowski. Only then I’ve begun to consider this possibility. This comparison is a test for those who frequently say the sound quality does not matter so much. If they do not change their mind even an inch, all they can do is go to the laryngologist. 

So, that was when the thought about those two versions being the same performance came to me. And even when I saw the identical sound waves (with 2-3 seconds long fragment probably deleted by Anna Wojtych, or maybe the raw material was incomplete?), the contrast between them was so deep I had to consult a renowned producer. He told me over the phone: I heard those two recordings. It is the same performance, but one version is hard to listen to and sounds like a poor-quality mp3. But the Polish version is more dynamic by 10 dB – it is a good edition. That means we have a recording that is not perfect but worked on enough to allow us to hear the original performance. Thus, we can say something about Polymorphia under Markowski. What we need to hear goes straight into our ears and is soothing. Here, for the first time, we meet inspired impertinence of the performance supported with the flexibility of articulation. The sounds are bouncing one off another but remain in tight and close relations with each other. It is a perfect example of an orchestra playing TOGETHER – shared clatter is marked with wild drive even when in the beginning it is… quiet (!). The tension is building up so naturally as a massive sea wave comes after a small one. This makes the first six minutes go by no one knows when. This part reminds me of a horse that allows being mounted only to take you for a ride and not react to your commands. Unfortunately, when the sound intensifies in the last part, described whirl is not there, the composition loses its cohesion, the chaos barge in, and – although the energy is still there – this, only a moment ago seemingly unbreakable unity – is falling apart.

Four years after Markowski’s version, the same Cracow Orchestra, this time conducted by Czyż, yet again performed and recorded Polymorphia, (Penderecki Volume one). Comparing those two versions, we hear at least a few differences, and crucial ones. Polymorphia sounds more monumental – no fluidity that may swallow you – the river may be flowing but the statue stands still. In this context, it is a paradox that the masterpiece does not sound whole. The division between parts imprints on the consciousness and with the sense of dragging enlarges the listener’s distance from the music. 

Sometimes you can hear a 10 minutes long composition and stay under the impression it lasted half an hour – such plenitude may be enchanting (looking for an example, I can give you Górecki, who was unsurpassed in extensio sensi temporis). And sometimes, like in Markowski’s version, you feel like the time passed you by unnoticed, and that is working too. But in Czyż’s version, the time stands still – and that is not a good thing. It is stuffy and overwhelming. The orchestra momentum is at its finest and strings are used up to maximum. As a person who looks (often foremost) for spontaneity, I should be borderline happy. Alas, every phenomenon occurs in a defined spectrum and as it turned out, old proverbs are right when it comes to music as well. So, first: enough is enough, and second: from the sublimity to ridiculousness is only one step. 

It would seem it is time to lay down my arms. I have discussed five Polymorphia versions recorded on CD and one live performance. I am afraid I appear stubbornly contradicted: it seems like I look for a mix of temper and fluidity of Cracow Orchestra under Markowski with the selective mastering exposing structural and timbral multithreading of the masterpiece. But in postproduction, neither immanent roughness of the instruments nor narrative coherence of the composition should be disturbed. And as the devil might shun the holy water, thus the ideal version has to avoid simplifying unambiguity, because that would hinder the full atmospheric potential, vaguely marked only in Slatkin’s version. As for the performers, they cannot be too cautious and too expressive, because when the passion becomes the objective, the result is grotesque. 

Is it possible? The mere fact that such a version can be described suggests it can exist. Luckily, further presumptions are not necessary, because Antoni Wit with Warsaw Orchestra did it all. 

Generally, my opinion considering recorded Penderecki’s music performances (composed before 1971) conducted by Wit and published by Naxos is ambivalent. It ranges from admiration through moderate acceptance to fierce opposition. But with this Polymorphia version, Antoni Wit did Polish culture a big favor. 

Grigor Leslie (Gerry Jablonski & the electric band) once said: ‘even when you are operating within a certain framework there is a space to express what matters. Because we certainly prepare our songs, practice, and work on them, but the thing is, during the show it all should sound like we have just met and played the first sounds that came to our minds. That is the secret.’ These words are appropriate in the context of the crucial for this article version of Polymorphia because every time I start listening to it, after the first few notes I feel like I have never heard it before. Commencing low tones work according to acoustics saying: FROM THE BOTTOM. When the earth beneath our feet shakes, we feel it with our whole body but can still see all the beauty surrounding us. In real life, such an earthquake forebodes nothing good. In music, it is the other way round.

One of those earthquakes comes in a weave of those (recklessly!) shivering, wide lows with vibrating diversity of the upper level. It keeps jumping on a massive dark magma like a water strider on the surface of the lake. This insect is pretty small and harmless – but if we enlarge it to the size of a marten, give it a bit of marten temper and then imagine there are tens of such beings – now we get an illustration of the way the high-frequency sounds are penetrating boiling horizon of bass tones’ blackness.

I should mention the atmosphere of this version: moving clouded severity, reminding me of walking in a damp cave with no artificial light. The corridors are going in many different ways, but we are consistently choosing only one. Normally before the seventh minute of our walk, we would meet a fault that should make us stop and go through a footbridge – in other words, the situation becomes complicated. But Antoni Wit neither gave us an additional rock to go on nor disrupted the fluidity of our walk. He emphasized the sharpness of chosen stalactites and stalagmites. Some of them were shown to us longer and thus are perceived differently. We can admire previously unknown sharp and thick columns. How various and striking were the dripstone draperies and cascades in the end! And what is important, by wrapping and dragging out some sounds, the conductor and musicians did not make them soft, and by making the narration more coherent did not let go of the crucial energy-generating resilience.  

Once, I read that in Elżbieta Penderecka’s opinion, when you do not know any work of Penderecki, it is good to listen to Polymorphia first. I used to turn my nose up to that, but today I would only add hissing: but only the version conducted by Wit! 

In the end, can the question: how, after six decades, does Polymorphia keep up with the times be answered? Well, the version conducted by Antoni Wit brings tears into my eyes – what may be more up-to-date than such emotion?


Postscriptum: for the inquisitive, I will add that the picture shows the map of The Bear Cave (Kletno, Poland) with the elements from the you-know-which score. 


1. Maria Kalota-Szymańska, Światło w ciemnościach (Wspomnienie o profesorze Henryku Elzenbergu), w: „Studia Filozoficzne” 1986, nr 12, s.130.

2. Henryk Elzenberg, Kłopot z istnieniem. Aforyzmy w porządku czasu, Toruń 2002, s. 78.

3. Maciej Geming, O muzyce się nie gada. Poznań 2018, s. 153.

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