March 25, 2012 3:49 pm

Penderecki and Greenwood, Barbican, London

The veteran Polish composer and Radiohead’s guitarist join forces for an evening with mixed results

This was the concert where Jonny met Krzysztof – the nearest we may get to a pop/classical love-in. Some years ago Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood took a fancy to the music of Krzysztof Penderecki, veteran Polish composer and erstwhile member of the European avant-garde, and when introduced to each other, the two got on famously. Greenwood, whose smear in 2004 announced a rock musician with a classical ear, paid the older composer the compliment of emulating his style – that of the user-friendly Penderecki, not the more abrasive style with which he established his reputation. You can see the attractions of a joint concert: Greenwood gets to stand side by side with an old master, while Penderecki’s fading star gets an injection of street cred. Applause all round.

The pair of early 1960s Penderecki works on this programme – Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima and Polymorphia – are hardly representative of his oeuvre. Both are short and matter-of-fact, making mild use of the instrument-banging and aleatoric techniques (where the music is left to chance) once beloved of Modernism. Greenwood’s two works – Popcorn Superhet Receiver and 48 Responses to Polymorphia – mimic those techniques beneath the saturated sound of English string tradition. The first uses slow glissandos to fragrant and dreamy effect. The second is embarrassingly retro – an inconsequential series of short movements better suited to film or ballet. Unlike smear, these pieces paint Greenwood as a dilettante, which we know he is not. Rather than hiding behind a cringe-making homage to an old-fashioned radical, it is time Greenwood attempted some grown-up classical music of his own.

Penderecki, looking not a day older than when he last visited the Barbican 12 years ago, oversaw his own pieces. The distractingly flamboyant Marek Mos conducted Greenwood’s. The excellent string orchestra, which plays the same works on a new Nonesuch CD, consisted of graduates of the Karel Szymanowski Music Academy of Katowice. The 75-minute concert was accompanied by a sympathetic light show and a slow-moving video, which didn’t add anything but didn’t spoil the music either. And the audience? The Greenwood fan club was out in droves, and everyone listened with due reverence.

3 stars

www.barbican.org.uk

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