Krzysztof Penderecki, a great musician and a great citizen of Poland, stood on the Kennedy Center Concert Hall stage last night to receive the prolonged ovation that followed the U.S. premiere of his "Te Deum."
It is music that arose out of an inner impulse that manifested itself in October 1978, when Penderecki's fellow countryman, Karol Wojtyla, became the first Polish pope in history. The text of the "Te Deum," which reaches back into early Christian history, was until the 16th century, the official hymn of Poland. Within the past century it has been given large choral-orchestral settings by Verdi, Bruckner, Vaughan Williams and Walton, among others.
While Penderecki completed his setting before the current crisis arose in his country, there is a moment in this "Te Deum" that strikes with immeasureable impact today as the news mounts of growing conflicts in Poland. Midway through the dramatic writing, Penderecki has inserted a traditional Polish hymn, one which is forbiden to be sung in that country today: God of Poland, before all time, Wrapped in great light, power and glory, Before thine altar we bear our petition: Father, restore to us our rightful land.
This is sung by the large, unaccompanied chorus in exquisitely simple four-part harmony, against which the soprano, as if in agony, implores God's blessing. It is an unforgettable moment.
The greater part of the music, which had its world premiere in Assisi last September, is conventional, often romantic in the beauty of the choral writing. A solo quartet, however, sings lines in wide leaps, though they often retreat into repeated litanies for mercy. The orchestra is treated in an eloquent, post-Wagnerian manner, rich in sonorities, and only occasionally, as at the lines "Sanctus, sanctus, sanctus," calling upon enlarged percussion forces in which bells play a signal role.
Mstislav Rostropovich led the National Symphony Orchestra in the "Te Deum" with enormous conviction, fully in control of its largest passages, emphasizing its dynamic range and intensifying its emotional reach. The soloists, adequate to the unusual demands, were Galina Vishnevskaya, Mariana Paunova, Gene Tucker and Boris Carmeli. It must be siad that Tucker provided the most lyrical singing with no sacrifice in meaning. The choral singing was superbly done by the Oratorio Society, trained by Robert Shafer.
The "Te Deum" is being repeated tonight at 8:30 and Thursday at 7. It will be performed by the same forces in Carnegie Hall in New York on Jan. 30. Rostropovich preceded it with the two "Lohengrin" preludes and the Fourth Symphony of Schumann. The Act III prelude went well, though the woodwinds were not quite in tune. The great climax of the Act I prelude was neither sufficiently prepared nor broadened.
The symphony is filled with pitfalls for the conductor, only some of which Rostropovich avoided. Elusive transition passages from slow introductory episodes to ensuing allegros were sluggish and lumpy and tempos were at times not clearly established. The final coda came off very well.