Written between 1963 and 1966, The Passion According to Saint Luke was one of Penderecki's earliest religious works and something that may well have come as a surprise to listeners in 1967 when it premiered. He accomplished a unique feat, composing a piece that was both deeply felt religiously while at the same time using the entire panoply of modernist theories and effects that he had developed. Moreover, he alludes to several other musical traditions, including Renaissance polyphony. Utilizing a chorus, a boy's choir, several vocal soloists, and an orchestra with an elaborate array of percussion (including instruments from non-Western traditions like gamelan and guiros), Penderecki unleashes waves of sanctity and chaos, shimmering light and wretched darkness. The choirs often hover in angelic tones only to descend into sheer crowd noise, a startlingly effective idea that never leaves the listener comfortable. More than three decades later, this work may sound far less adventurous than it did at the time, as many of Penderecki's ideas, particularly his choral voicings, have become part of the standard repertoire. Everyone from movie composers (some of his string writing was used in The Exorcist) to many of the Eastern European so-called mystical composers have borrowed heavily from him. But his Passion, along with pieces like Utrenja, have a quality that sets it apart from imitators, a searching devoutness that owes nothing to postmodernism. Much as one can appreciate a Renaissance religious painting without sharing the religious point of view, so can one appreciate the sincerity, creativity, and wonder expressed by Penderecki herein. Not available on disc as of 2002, the two-LP vinyl set is a relative rarity very much worth snatching up.
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