MARLBORO, Vt. — An essential aspect of the Marlboro Music festival is the balance it achieves between the heritage of its illustrious past and the need for renewal and freshness. One of its strategies for achieving this is mixing performers of differing generations and experience levels, ensuring both continuity and variation. Another is a residency in which a prominent composer comes to the festival each summer to coach his or her works. This year it is Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki, two of whose pieces were on Marlboro programs this past weekend.
A listener whose knowledge of Penderecki’s music centers on his avant-garde works of the 1960s, such as the “Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima,” would be shocked by the Sextet (2000) and Clarinet Quartet (1993). Not only does chamber music form a relatively small part of the composer’s output; he long ago abandoned his ultra-modernist aesthetic for a more approachable language. But — and this was the significance of Marlboro’s vivid performances — these works are no less inventive and ingeniously crafted than their more radical antecedents.
The Sextet, for clarinet, horn, piano, and strings, played on Saturday night, begins with a series of ominous low notes in the piano, inducing a sense of unease that does not relent through the entire piece. The music oscillates between two states: plaintive soliloquies for individual instruments and turbulent passages of crosscutting chromatic lines. Stasis and violence seem to morph inevitably into one another. The music is tonally rooted but rootless, never finding a resting place. Toward the end of the lengthy Larghetto, the energy dissipates, and the music folds in on itself as it reaches its apparitional close.
An even heavier sense of leave-taking is present in the Quartet for Clarinet and String Trio, played on Sunday. It opens with a shadowy clarinet solo; each of the three strings enters tentatively, and just when the music achieves a sense of full presence, the movement ends. A rushing scherzo and a limping waltz lead to the final movement, “Abschied” (“Farewell”). Whether or not this is a reference to Mahler’s “Das Lied von der Erde,” it sounds similarly melancholy and austere. Each new musical idea in the Penderecki seems like the end of a story, and his ability to vary the texture, at slow tempos and with just four instruments, is miraculous.
The composer, who took the stage to copious applause, must have been deeply pleased with the performances, as both ensembles did superb work. Two performers in particular warrant mention: horn player Radovan Vlatkovic in the Sextet (who also played in its world premiere), and clarinetist Anthony McGill in the Quartet.
In fact, almost everything during the weekend was played at the elevated level that devotees of Marlboro, now in its 63d season, have come to regard as almost routine. That was so even when the pieces were slight, such as the trio for flute, violin, and viola by the obscure Dutch composer Jan van Gilse that opened Saturday’s concert. That evening also included the Brahms Piano Quartet in G minor, a piece with a regular Marlboro presence through the years that still impressed for the power of its Gypsy-inflected finale.
Sunday’s concert included an unmemorable clarinet quintet by the German composer Max Reger, a composer for whom Marlboro harbors an endearing, if puzzling, affection. The program was bookended by two composers’ precocious early works: Mozart’s Divertimento in E-flat for winds, K.252, written when he was 20, and Britten’s sparklingly inventive Sinfonietta, Op. 1, composed at age 19. Both readings honored the composers’ youthful dexterity.
The festival continues through Aug. 11.