New York — When Krzysztof Penderecki came to public prominence in the '60s, it was as a composer on the leading edge of the avant-garde movement. His brief ``Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima,'' in which the orchestra becomes a horrific tone-canvas of air-raid sirens and bombs, still sears its images on the aural mind. His first full-length piece, ``The Passion According to St. Luke'' gained him the respect of the world and is still thought by most to be his musical masterpiece. It, too, used his brand of sound-painting to re-create the drama of the passion play.
Penderecki (pronounced Pen-de-RETTS-ki) is music's leading example of a creative artist living in the midst of an oppressive political system. His composing career has been marked by a reaction against tyranny. The ``St. Luke Passion'' might never have been written had not the Polish government begun persecuting the Roman Catholic Church. His most recent work, ``The Polish Requiem,'' is a tribute to the Solidarity movement. Artistically, his neoromantic phase -- where melody and traditional harmonies dominated the music -- was a reaction to the would-be tyranny of the avant-gardism that first gave him his voice.
Penderecki has been on tour conducting the Cracow Philharmonic in two programs devoted primarily to his more recent works. The shortest piece, ``Jacob's Awakening,'' was an effective eight-minute mood piece that depicts Jacob's return from the arms of Morpheus. The sound of eight ocarinas sets an eerie mood for the instrumental re-creation of sighing and yawning, interspersed with contemplative moments that hint of melody.
This new synthesis dominates his Second Cello Concerto, commissioned by the Berlin Philharmonic and written for Mstislav Rostropovich. The composer now uses elements of that slithery, pitchless noise-canvas style, peppered with fragments of melodies, strong tonal foundation chords, and other devices left over from his neo-romantic phase, which should give the listener a handle to grab onto throughout this musical journey.
Unfortunately, it stresses intellect over soul and is occupied by the mechanics of virtuosity rather than the communication of some heartfelt message. The cello part is startlingly, even aggressively difficult; yet Yo-Yo Ma, playing a magnificent Stradivarius on loan from Jacqueline du Pr'e, gave a spellbinding performance.
It is logical that Penderecki the conductor would be drawn to the music of Shostakovich -- the quintessential example of a man oppressed by a political system yet still able to create musical testaments of often brutal power and devastating impact. Curiously, Penderecki's reading of the enigmatic Sixth Symphony stressed structure and orchestration over the crucial mood of arid desolation and cruel contrasts one thought he would so readily identify with.
The Cracow Philharmonic played the program superbly. As with most of its senior Eastern European counterparts (this orchestra was founded only in 1945), this is a technically accomplished, well-drilled ensemble, alert to the demands of the conductor.
The last three nights of the US tour -- tonight in Stamford, Conn., tomorrow in Carnegie Hall, and Sunday in Boston -- will be devoted to Penderecki's most recent work, the ambitious ``Polish Requiem.'' Its haunting ``Lacrimosa'' can be heard on a superb new record that features his deeply moving ``Te Deum'' (both conducted by the composer -- EMI/Angel, digital, DS-38060).