GÓRECKI Symphony No 3
It was two decades ago this year that Górecki’s Third Symphony topped the charts, though Classic FM’s much-publicised launch wasn’t its only prompt. Weeks before that the work had received a partial airing on Frank Bough’s LBC show and reaction to it had jammed the station’s phone lines. Earlier still, in 1985, it had featured as the soundtrack to the French film Police starring Gérard Depardieu, Sophie Marceau and Sandrine Bonnaire and, because of that, gained something of a cult following on the Continent. Recordings issued on Koch and Olympia made some impact in the UK but it wasn’t until Dawn Upshaw with the London Sinfonietta under David Zinman made their version for Warner that Górecki’s Third really became a hit in this country. Had they not recorded it and had Classic FM chosen another version instead, one with a less creamy, sensual voice and a less intensely lyrical orchestral sound (in other words, less of an ‘easy’ listen), would it have had the same impact on a wider public? I think not, although it would be unfair to cite the Zinman recording, beautiful though it is, as definitive.
This is in essence a tragic symphony that ends with a ray of optimism; it has relatively recent history as a traumatic subtext, even though the composer denied it was any sort of threnody, and there is certainly room for more than one view of it, one where smooth contours are less important than tonal weight and a certain ‘edge’. While John Axelrod and the Danish National Symphony Orchestra honour the work’s slowly unwinding structure, they’re not afraid to underline certain expressive elements, the very end being a fair case in point, which glows to a radiant forte.
Isabel Bayrakdarian is very different to Upshaw, more obviously operatic in style and Slavic in sound, and those who are used to the earlier recording might baulk at her relatively wide vibrato under pressure. In that respect, Upshaw has the steadiness of Marni Nixon (of West Side Story and My Fair Lady fame, not to mention Stravinsky, Schoenberg and Webern), which may help explain why her version took flight so easily. But this new version, like Antoni Wit’s CD on Naxos, is excellent in its own way and the sound has plenty of amplitude.