This is the first recording made of Penderecki's monumental masterwork, the Polish Requiem, and the first of two conducted by the composer's longtime champion Antoni Wit. As a performance, I consider it to be the finest available overall, with impassioned singing and playing by the chorus and orchestra (the Polish Radio and Television Choir in Cracow, the Cracow Philharmonic Choir, and the Polish Radio National Symphony Orchestra) and the strongest quartet of soloists -- Jadwiga Gadulanka, Jadwiga Rappe (possibly the great contralto of the last thirty years; she has recorded this work three times now), Henryk Grychnik, and Carlo Zardo. Their voices are less dry, gritty, or shrill and more stable than some soloists on later recordings. There is one drawback -- being made in 1985, it does not contain the 15-minute Sanctus movement that the composer added in 1993. By way of compensation, however, the set is well filled out with a 1967 recording of Penderecki's Dies Irae, written to commemorate the victims of Auschwitz, and once again with a stellar cast -- soloists Stefania Woytowicz, Wieslaw Ochman (how often does one get a tenor of his stature singing contemporary music?) and Bernard Ladysz, conductor Henryk Czyz, and the Cracow Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir.
The two works exemplify the contrasting styles of Penderecki's earlier and later styles. The Dies Irae features his trademark experimental sonic devices, ranging from microtonalism, a huge array of percussion instruments and percussive noises from other instruments, divisi strings, and non-singing vocal effects from the choir (whispering, hissing, shouting, etc.) Those who do not like the extremes of contemporary classical music will not like this piece. The Requiem, by contrast, show Penderecki's reversion to a more neo-Romantic tonal style, somewhat akin to Shostakovich at his darkest, though still employing occasional microtonal passages. It too features devices typical of this period, particularly slow-moving, inexorable ascending and descending chromatic scales (often juxtaposed against one another) and densely clustered string harmonies. I unabashedly consider the Requiem to be one of the very greatest compositions of the twentieth century, standing alongside such large-scale choral/orchestral masterworks as the Mahler Eighth Symphony, Elgar's Dream of Gerontious, Britten's War Requiem, Janacek's Glagolithic Mass, Frank Martin's Golgotha, the Dona Nobis Pacem and Sancta Civitas of Vaughan Williams, and the stupendous Missa Sabrinensis of Herbert Howells. (Rachmaninoff's a cappella All-Night Vigil or "Vespers" occupiers its own unique niche.)
Since this recording is hard to find, snap it up without delay if you find it and want this music. If one must have the Requiem absolutely complete, I would choose the conductor's own performance on Chandos with the Stockholm Philharmonic over the newer Naxos recording with Antoni Wit again, primarily because of the extremely disappointing recorded sound of the latter. Deutsche Grammophon once released a live performance conducted by the composer in 1990, which also lacks the Sanctus movement, but that is apparently now out of print. The Dies Irae has a fine competing recording on Naxos with Antoni Wit, paired with the only recording of the composer's Symphony No. 8; the latter is an interesting work that every fan of Penderecki will want, but not one of his strongest.