The Minnesota Orchestra had a special pipeline to Poland and its exploding musical culture during the 1960s and '70s, the years that Stanislaw Skrowaczewski served as the orchestra's music director.
The joke among the musicians was that Minneapolis heard the new works of the Polish avant-garde before they were heard in Warsaw. Not true, of course. Nonetheless, Skrowaczewski, who was born in Lwow, Poland (now in Ukraine), in 1923, knew the important Polish composers and their works intimately, and he programmed them often — Henryk Górecki, Witold Lutoslawski and especially Krzysztof Penderecki, with whom he formed a special bond.
In 1978 he conducted the premiere of Penderecki's Violin Concerto No. 1 with Isaac Stern as soloist, a work that marked the composer's break with his avant-garde past and his embrace of a kind of neo-Romanticism.
Given that much of this music is less often heard these days, Osmo Vänskä's programing of Penderecki's Cello Concerto No. 2 in the orchestra's concerts this week promised an event of considerable interest. The concerto, composed in 1982 — Penderecki himself conducted it here in 1989 — expands on the expressive Romantic vein initiated in the Violin Concerto while retaining some of the modernist techniques of the composer's earlier "sonority" pieces.
The performance Thursday morning at Orchestra Hall, energized by a brilliant reading of the solo part by the veteran Finnish cellist Arto Noras, confirmed the work's high standing. Structured in eight brief and varied sections that flow without pause, like a river of anguish, and intense — though often tender — lyricism, there can be no doubt that this is one of Penderecki's greatest works.
What holds it all together for some 37 minutes is a series of descending strokes in the upper strings, soft and eerie, like icicles hitting a window, heard at the start and then reiterated at the beginning of later sections. (Bernard Herrmann used the same device to underscore the shower scene in "Psycho.")
Vänskä drew a performance of impressive depth and resonance from the orchestra, and Noras played throughout with passionate conviction and adroit technique, capturing succinctly the melancholy ache of the "Lento" section along with the fury of the final cadenza. The work ends with a wistful duet for cello and oboe and the sound of distant bells. The audience's standing ovation came as no surprise.
The mystery and foreboding in the opening chords of Beethoven's "Leonore" Overture No. 2, the curtain-raiser, seemed an apt setting for the larger Penderecki concerto that followed.
Vänskä closed after intermission with Brahms' Symphony No. 3. His relatively slow pacing of the first movement and his highlighting of often-obscured details diluted some of the music's natural flow. The remaining movements moved more easily.
Michael Anthony is a Twin Cities classical music critic.