Length: 25 minutes
Orchestration: piccolo, two flutes, two oboes, English horn, two clarinets, bass clarinet, two bassoons, contrabassoon, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (triangle tree, bell tree, cymbals, tubular bells, two tam-tams, tambourine, tenor drum, snare drum, bass drum, glockenspiel, marimba), harp, celesta, and strings
Having led the Polish avant-garde in the 1960s, Penderecki has gradually turned away, as many older composers do, from the uncompromising modernity of his early music. Now in his 80s, he is writing music that communicates readily with audiences of all persuasions, unafraid to echo classical models or to allow the balm of consonance to inform the textures. Most of his pieces are performed widely and frequently, including this Concerto Grosso for three cellos, which has been featured by many orchestras in Europe and the Americas. Charles Dutoit, who was Music Director of the NHK Orchestra in Tokyo from 1998 to 2001, having commissioned the work on behalf of that orchestra and given the first performance in Tokyo, has programmed it with many other orchestras, as he does today. The work is dedicated to Maestro Dutoit.
Concertos feature prominently in Penderecki’s work. One each for piano, viola, flute, and horn; two each for violin, cello, and clarinet; a double concerto for violin and viola; various smaller concertante works with solo instruments; all these betray an exceptional satisfaction in setting one or more soloists against the kaleidoscopic colors of the orchestra. The sonority of the cello being so rich and expressive, it is no surprise that Penderecki called for three cellos in this work, knowing that they could function individually and as a group of special quality. He called it Concerto Grosso with reference to the Corellian type in which two or more soloists are in constant dialogue with a ripieno orchestra in support. Since 2001 he has written a second Concerto Grosso, this time for five clarinets and orchestra. Who knows where this may lead?
It is convenient to follow the sequence of sections within the music, even though it is continuous. The title “Notturno” is the only indication from the composer to appear in the score itself. Much of the material is based on half-step intervals turning in on themselves and moving steadily downwards, helpfully and clearly indicated by the violins alone at the outset:
The effect is often melancholic, as successive phrases tumble downwards and then reach upwards with wider intervals. In contrast with this sad and serious quality, the work sometimes turns to grotesquerie, fierce or military in tone, to which the soloists contribute less and the orchestra more. The following division of sections may be helpful:
1 Introduction, allowing the three soloists to introduce themselves and to explore the preliminary material.
2 A slow section, with the soloists in warm harmony supported by a solo horn.
3 Fierce music, march-like and harsh.
4 An Adagio full of tears, reinforced by a sad oboe.
5 A section marked “giocoso,” but more grotesque than jocose.
6 Mysterious sounds and scales, with tinny slashes on tamtam and cymbal.
7 Noisy music, without much class.
8 The Notturno: slow string chords, with an oboe in dialogue, which rise to solemn brass chords, and close with a violin solo.
9 A faster section, with heavy repeated notes.
10 More relaxed, with a flute solo.
11 The finale, with a cadenza for the three cellists, and ending with reminiscences of the desolate music from the opening sections.