Krzysztof Penderecki wrote his monumental Seventh Symphony, Seven Gates of Jerusalem, to mark the third millennium of the holy city in 1996. Incredibly, it’s never been performed in Britain until now. Or maybe that’s not so incredible, since it calls for a huge orchestra with off-stage woodwind and brass, three choirs, five soloists and a narrator. Not to mention a pair of tubaphones – vast tuned percussion instruments of Penderecki’s own invention that look like the plastic tubing shelves at B&Q and are struck with table tennis bats.
It befell a student orchestra – albeit an exemplary one – to realise the work for the first time in the UK, with Penderecki himself on the podium. The 82-year-old, in Manchester to receive a fellowship of the Royal Northern College of Music, has the charisma of a prophet. Witnessing him unleash the colossal maelstrom based on a selection of psalms and Old Testament texts became as much a spiritual as a musical experience.
The seven-movement work is closer to an oratorio than a conventional symphony: as vast waves of polyphony crest and break around you, one is continually astonished by Penderecki’s ability to write music that sounds as if it could have been written at any point over the past 400 years, or the next 400.
There were also reminders why Penderecki was Stanley Kubrick’s favourite composer: each time the thrilling Australian soprano Hannah Dahlenburg iterated the psalm, If I forget you Jerusalem, let my right hand be given to oblivion, she was persecuted by seven shrill slasher chords sharp enough to perform the amputation.
In the first half, a robust, romantic account of Lutoslawski’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra featuring RNCM gold-medal-winner Dominic Degavino was a considerable achievement in its own right, yet all but obliterated by the majesty of the event it preceded.