Gorecki Orchestral and Vocal Works

Author: 
Michael Stewart

Gorecki Choral and Orchestral Works

  • Old Polish Music
  • Totus tuus
  • Beatus vir
  • Old Polish Music
  • Totus tuus
  • Beatus vir

Although my personal response to Gorecki's Third Symphony has cooled somewhat since I first heard it some eight years ago, it is nevertheless good to see it, and indeed contemporary music in general, finding a much wider audience than before. How far this new found audience is prepared to delve however remains to be seen. Astute marketing has clearly played an important part in the symphony's success, and I would be the first to admit that 'classical music' can benefit from techniques such as this, especially if it encourages people to adopt a more adventurous attitude in their musical tastes.
In Gorecki's case, those prepared to delve deeper than the Third Symphony can find plenty to be going on with. Gorecki's career prior to the Third Symphony is admirably covered on a new disc from Olympia—''The Essential Gorecki''—featuring archival recordings especially selected by the composer. The miniature cantata Epitafium, Op. 12 for mixed choir and instrumental ensemble, dates from 1958 whilst Gorecki was still a student at the State Higher School of Music in Katowice. Set to a text by the contemporary Polish poet Julian Tuwim, and bearing a strong affinity to Webern's Das Augenlicht, the work reveals Gorecki's early propensity for mixing highly organized sounds of the post-Webern variety, with a freer, more pointilliste, sharply coloured technique. This was expanded and elaborated upon in the controversial orchestral piece Scontri (''Collisions'') of 1960, where large blocks of opposing sonority (sometimes graphically notated) are pitted against each other until finally combining into new blocks of sound from which the process is repeated. Colourful manipulation of sonority also features strongly in Genesis II (Instrumental Songs) composed two years later. Here the process is one of purification and liberation—a persistent C sharp is continually smothered and assaulted until all is stripped away leaving the solitary note suspended in mid-air.
To my mind, however, the most interesting works on the disc are Refren (''Refrain''), Op. 21 and Old Polish music, Op. 24 which date from 1965 and 1969 respectively. In these works we begin to detect the emergence of the leaner, more tonally orientated style that was to find ultimate expression in the Third Symphony. In Refren, for instance, the simplicity of the aural experience (the pianissimo eerie stalking of 48 divisi strings in the opening and closing sections of the work) belie the complexity at work in the organization of the material—a process that would be repeated (albeit contrapuntally rather than chordally) in the first movement of the Third Symphony. In Old Polish music Gorecki returned to the block manipulation of material, though here the music is far more tonally anchored (the material springs from a two-part fourteenth-century organum, and the tenor part of a lullaby Already It Is Dusk, by the Renaissance Polish composer Waclaw z Szamotul) and takes on a ritualistic atmosphere not previously encountered in his output. Although the recordings, made in 1967 and 1970, show their age a little now, the performances—by the Polish National Symphony Orchestra under Jan Krenz and the National Philharmonic Orchestra under Andrzej Markowski—are committed and well played.
Old Polish music can also be found on a new Argo disc devoted to Gorecki's music. Although I would certainly recommend this over the Olympia recording, both in terms of recording and performance, I have to admit that the remaining items on the disc do little to ignite my enthusiasm. The first of these, Totus tuus, for unaccompanied chorus, was composed in 1987 for Pope John Paul II's third visit to his homeland and reveals Gorecki's strong ties with Polish Catholic chant. Whilst certainly effective for its intended use and wholly approachable in its musical language, there is little, if anything, here that points to Gorecki's own personal voice. The final work on the disc, Beatus vir for chorus, bass soloist and orchestra was commissioned by Karol Wojtyla—when he was still Cardinal of Krakow—to mark the 900th anniversary of the martyrdom of Saint Stanislaw, and was composed in 1979, three years after the Third Symphony. Some pieces of music by their very nature or subject matter are dark, introspective and brooding, but this work is so obsessively cocooned in its own misery and despondence that its ultimate message comes over as one of self-indulgence rather than moving passion. The slender material—too slender for its 32 minutes duration—outstayed its welcome very early on for me, and though I returned to the work several times in the hope of finding something positive to say, it only served to increase my feeling of irritation. There are excellent performances, however, from the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra and the Prague Philharmonic Choir conducted by John Nelson, and bass soloist Nikita Storojev in Beatus vir.
Gorecki's two string quartets—Already It Is Dusk (No. 1) and Quasi una Fantasia (No. 2)—date from 1988 and 1977 respectively and both can be found in excellent performances by the Kronos Quartet on a new disc from Elektra Nonesuch. My biggest reservations regarding Gorecki's recent compositions is the overwhelming sense of darkness and despair—hardly a speck of light infiltrates this music. Combined with the rather narrow tonal range that the music inhabits the effect can be somewhat claustrophobic, and I find this particularly so listening to the string quartets. My review copy of the disc came minus the booklet notes so I am unable to furnish in depth details of the quartets, save that the First Quartet, Already It Is Dusk, derives its material from the same sixteenth-century lullaby as does the Old Polish music, and that both quartets exhibit similar tendencies for juxtaposing slow (sometimes meandering) elegiac sections with sections of great frenetic energy. Gorecki enthusiasts will already have the Kronos Quartet's recording of the First Quartet (yes, the recording here is the same one that is currently available on another Elektra Nonesuch CD coupled with Lerchenmusik) so if they want the Second, which I suspect they will, they will have to part with another £13 or so—is that astute marketing or what?—I do hope this is one marketing ploy that doesn't catch on.
Finally, we come to the available recordings of Third Symphony. If you have not already purchased a recording of the work, you may like to know that there are currently three recordings to choose from—one on the Koch Schwann label featuring the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Wlodzirmierz Kamirski with soprano Stefania Woytowicz, one on Olympia with the Polish National Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Jerzy Katlewicz (also featuring Stefania Woytowicz), and of course the now famous Elecktra Nonesuch recording by the London Sinfonietta conducted by David Zinman with soprano Dawn Upshaw. The Symphony itself (subtitled Symphony of Sorrowful Songs) defies lengthy description, it is what it is—a lament for all the innocent victims of the Second World War—and stands or falls on the willingness of the listener to surrender to the timeless, hypnotic qualities of its three slow, elegiac movements for soprano and orchestra. In many ways ''Song No. 1'' (some 25 minutes in length) is the most remarkable of the three—a perfect marriage of mathematical logic and artistic beauty, complex yet aurally simple. Its canonical arch-structure, building from the bass and rising up to the central climax (a setting of the Lament for the Holy Cross) and subsequent return to the solitary statement on double-basses with which the movement began is surely a musical reflection of Gorecki's beloved Tatra Mountains. For this listener the remaining movements, despite moments of beauty, only detract from what is a perfect piece in its own right. All the recordings available are very fine, but my ultimate recommendation goes not to Elektra Nonesuch's current run-away success, but to the moving 1982 recording on Koch Schwann Musica Mundi—this is heartfelt music-making, pure and simple, that succeeds admirably in conveying the sorrow of these aptly named sorrowful songs. Both Koch and Olympia also provide better value money with their inclusion of the very approachable Three Pieces in Old Style composed in 1963, and in Olympia's case even further value with the inclusion of the short, but effective Amen for choir, Op. 34.'

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