In the third episode of “Dekalog,” Krzysztof Kieślowski’s ten-part series of interconnected short films (each based on one of the Ten Commandments), cab driver Janusz’s Christmas Eve is interrupted by Ewa, his former extramarital lover. Janusz abandons his family dinner to assist Ewa with what he believes is tracking down her missing husband. What Ewa reveals at 7 a.m., after their long night’s journey into day, is that her husband left her shortly after he’d discovered her affair with Janusz three years earlier. He has a new family, and she’s spent the last three Christmases alone. If, she reasons, she can get Janusz to spend Christmas Eve with her, she’ll be able to face the uncertainty of the future. If not, she would kill herself. 

While Ewa’s gambit is a success, she and Janusz have a few close scrapes with death in his taxi before her game is revealed. At one point, he steers them into an impending head-on collision with a train before swerving at the last minute. Later, Ewa takes the wheel as Janusz is driving, running them off-road into a Christmas tree that is apparently made of balsa wood for how delicately it plops on the hood of the car. Its colorful sputnik lights seem to do more damage. 

Even in Communist Poland, Kieślowski had a Messiaen-like relationship with God: personal yet pervasive in his work. The Polish Christmas carol “Bóg się rodzi” (“God Is Being Born”) bookends this episode. His characters throughout the series employ God as a verb, “God”-ing one another through moments of crisis both apostolic and atheistic. As grim as the emotional and spiritual landscape of “Dekalog 3” is, it hints at reconciliation. The baggage between Ewa and Janusz is unpacked, and both seemingly move on with their lives. 

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In music, Kieślowski’s closest-fitting counterpart is composer Krzystof Penderecki, who once remarked that he “found God back” through writing music. By Penderecki’s own accounting, he’s also second only to Messiaen in the number of religious works composed during the 20th century. Often his spiritual music overlapped with his dual mandate of “absorbing and processing the experience of our century.” Look no further than “Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima” or “Polish Requiem” to see these overlaps at play. By contrast, Penderecki’s Symphony No. 2 seems tangential to the topic of either the experience of our century or finding God back through music. The subtitle “Christmas” comes off as a misnomer (especially if you spent the better part of last year listening to every single opera singer’s Christmas album). It’s unclear if Penderecki—who incorporates the first four notes of “Silent Night” into each of the work’s three sections—intended for that moniker to stick. 

Penderecki began work on his Second Symphony on Christmas Eve, 1979 (it was due for a premiere with Zubin Mehta and the New York Philharmonic in May of 1980), opting for a single-movement structure but sidelining the world of the avant-garde in which he’d been steeped for something more in the vein of Mahler and Bruckner. You hear “Silent Night” in the work, but also hear echoes of “Tristan und Isolde.” Holy and mild meets “Mild und Leise.” Like Kieślowski’s “Dekalog 3,” this gives us a more accurate portrait of Christmas. The foggy gloom of the work’s atmosphere casts a grainy patina that lasts throughout—a truly bleak midwinter. It also suggests a time of introspection, of hibernating from the external world in order to move inward. The Penderecki who, with his First Symphony, wanted to “rebuild the world from scratch…a new cosmogony,” is replaced by one who, comparing the two works, is more aware of “the need for internalization and for describing the drama of existence.” 

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The “Christmas” Symphony drives steadily through the night, tense with history and her competing agendas. At moments, it veers into oncoming traffic, moves towards a head-on collision with a barreling train, testing and tempting fate. But it also remembers the most ubiquitous line in the Bible: “Be not afraid.” It’s a phrase that’s even used in the Christmas story, speaking to the culture of fear that propels the drama of the Nativity. Silence here is as much as augur as it is an abatement. In the face of this, Penderecki finds moments of stark, shattering beauty; vague glimmers of hope in a dark and bitter landscape.

Penderecki’s death, following a long illness, at the end of March in 2020 seemed like a final spiritual enigma or koan (not unlike Pauline Oliveros dying shortly after the 2016 U.S. presidential election). How to process the experiences of that year—not to mention the years since—in his absence? Symphony No. 2 is not a bad place to start. The composer himself made two recordings of the work, but a new version, taken from a live performance with the Warsaw Philharmonic during its 2021-22 season, is worth it for the sensitivity and fluency of conductor Andrey Boreyko’s interpretation, balancing Shostakovichian edge with Mahlerian elegance—a connection furthered by its pairing with Penderecki’s Piano Concerto, subtitled “Resurrection” and written in response to September 11. 

If Penderecki is a smidge too merry and bright for you this month, how about a Christmas album that begins with a “Dies Irae”? OK, “Christmas” may be a bit of a stretch, but “Merd’v’là l’hiver” (“Shit! Here comes winter”) captures the dry spell of the season: As cozy as it is to turn inward, that also tends to be a luxury that not everyone can afford. Enter, then, Les Lunaisiens: a French ensemble of specialists in the arcane and esoteric corners of Belle Époque street songs—a time of French chanson before Jacques Brel was ever alive or well. “To sing the lyricists, writers and historians is to reopen one of the ways leading us to our collective memory,” goes their mission statement. 

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It’s an admirable mission delivered with full-throated commitment, rather than a misguided attempt towards “elevation,” and its latest manifestation is a program built around cabaret poet Jehan Rictus’s Soliloquies of the Poor, which includes this album’s title line in a poem that also includes the couplet: “The Bourgeois, in the evening, go pity the poor / By the fire…after dinner!” (Rictus would have been both excellent at and insufferable on Twitter.) The text works its way in and out of a crush of songs from the late-19th and early-20th centuries, which in turn rub shoulders with the occasional 13th and 15th-century excerpt that sounds a bit like the early era of Nonesuch’s Christmas mixes

But instead of the divine or deified, the songs are complaints and protestations sung by legends of the street versus the stage. For many, winter in Paris was no romantic montage. Those who made their living as street performers struggled even in good weather to perform without being redlined by bureaucracy. In winter, with its unpredictable weather patterns, few cafés or taverns (no matter how seedy) would open their doors to their neighbors. Georges-Eugène Haussmann’s gentrification of the city in the second half of the 1800s did little to help matters, but did fuel the atmosphere of discontent. Think: “The rent is too damn high,” underscored by a hurdy-gurdy. Leading the charge is Stéphanie d’Oustrac, whose anisette-tinged operatic mezzo-soprano blooms into full Marlene Dietrich mode with a full-throated, gender-ambidextrous belt.

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On the other end of the vocal spectrum is Norwegian countertenor Daniel Sæther, whose September release, “Vintersong,” finally has its time to shine. “With what tones can hope be played?” Sæther wonders in the album’s title work. “Wind is whirling through registers in and out of all that can be sung, and your ears become so warm.” Composer Knut Vaage’s instrumentation for this, however, is unsettled with a familiar contemporary music brand of anxiety. Layer up with Berg and Ligeti all you want, you’re still likely to get frostbite. The solidity of the work comes from Vaage’s sense of precision and eye for detail—skills put to good use during his early training as a carpenter before he switched to music. Even more thrilling is hearing all of this play out on early music period instruments; like retrofitting a Louis XIV sécretaire into a minibar. The effect is terrifying and delicate, both for Vaage’s composition and Sæther’s wraithy performance: shards of ice that could sever an artery, but will likewise dissolve after an hour or so of sunlight. ¶

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