This 2012 release in EMI's 20th Century Classics series is the latest packaging for a fantastic two-disc set of Penderecki's avant-garde music of the 1960s (1959-1974). The 2007 Gemini set included seven pieces and 76 minutes on Disc One, and four pieces, including the first Symphony, and 72 minutes on Disc Two. The current release is almost exactly the same, adding only the "Three Miniatures for clarinet and piano" (3'47) on Disc Two. All the music is conducted by the composer, and performed by the Polish Radio National Symphony Orchestra, except the first Symphony, performed by the London Symphony Orchestra. The original EMI recordings are from 1972, 1973 and 1975. (It was available even further back as Orchestral Works, Vol. 1, released in 2001.) So if you already have it, take note!
Penderecki blazed to fame shortly after graduating from the Krakow Academy of Music in 1958. He won awards in Poland with his compositions, and the "Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima" won the UNESCO Prize in 1960. Other than "Hiroshima," I have found no political references regarding Penderecki's early music, but I can't help concluding from its tone that the composer was deeply affected by social and political events. This music is unremittingly dissonant and anguished, and it seems to be concentrating the sense of dread of living under the threat of all-out nuclear war which was especially intense before the SALT agreements of the 1970s. Some might consider these works to be dated, a symptom of the post-war avant-garde run amok, but I find them to continue to exert a baleful power, and as the new millennial world has certainly not given any cause for calm repose or complacency, they are arguably as relevant as ever.
Of particular note is the "Symphony." In two movements, the first 19'51" and the second 11'23", it is an astonishing journey through sonorities and textures never before heard from an orchestra. But far from being a display of odd effects for their own sake, it tells a powerful story of wayfaring through a strange, dark land. It is one of the most powerful works of the late 20th century, and should not be missed by anyone interested in modern and contemporary music.
Following the period represented here, Penderecki either retrenched or grew out of his avant phase, take your pick. Perhaps his most well-known work, the ST. LUKE PASSION for chorus and orchestra, is from the late 1960s, and so uses radical musical language to express the Catholic vision that would increasingly dominate Penderecki's music from the 1970s on, with more conventional, tonal means. It seems to me that he was on the edge, staring into the abyss, while writing his 1960s music. Then he, and the world, stepped back and kept going.
In other words, I believe that he was a reluctant radical, unlike others of the avant-garde who persisted (and persist) with a radical vision, aesthetic, social, political, and/or spiritual, impervious to world events. I know there are those who think that either Penderecki's radical phase must have been insincere, or the more traditional music he has written since is insincere, but this music has the utmost integrity, and I believe that the same is true of the composer. (See my review of Anne-Sophie Mutter's recording of his Violin Concerto No. 2, METAMORPHOSES.)
In the past I have been very critical of EMI's cover art, much of which has been horrible, but I have to say that the covers on the 20th Century Classics series have been great, including this one.