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HENRYK GORECKI (b. 1933)

This Polish composer came to international prominence as a result of his third Symphony, "a Symphony of Sorrowful Songs". Written in 1976, it was conceived whilst walking in the Tatra mountains: a region of outstanding beauty and rich cultural traditions on the Polish-Slovak border but close also to the site of Auschwitz. Its aim is to draw together the emotional history of the country in one work.

The Symphony has three movements, all marked "lento". It uses an arch structure with the 15th century "Lamentation of the Holy Cross Monastery" at its apex. This is a lament by the Mother of Christ at the foot of the Cross. It pays a nod of cultural reference to the "Stabat Mater" by his fellow Pole Szymanowski - one of that composer's better-known works, and one rooted in a study of Polish church music.

The first movement builds very gradually through the string register in a simple canon, giving a sense of uplift. After the setting of the chant, it unwinds slowly in reverse; returning whence it began - with a simple melodic line, the cantus firmus.

The second movement sets a prayer scratched onto the wall of a Gestapo cell by an 18-year-old girl held prisoner there. The lyrical and soft beauty of the music contrasts with the horror of its origins. The main theme of the first movement continues here. The lowest strings outline a variation on the "Hail Mary", in which she implores the help of the Queen of Heaven.

In the most popular recordings of the work (Elektra Nonesuch 79282-2), the solo is sung powerfully by Dawn Upshaw. However there is also a very good budget disc on Naxos 8 .550822 with an entirely Polish cast of performers.

The third and final movement draws on another source of inspiration dear to the composer: his country's folk music. This echoes the first movement thematically, hence giving symmetry to the work. We hear the lament of a mother - this time an earthly one - for her son who has been killed by enemies. Although the ending fades to a quiet close rather than rounding to a triumph, it allows hope and peace to emerge after tragedy.

This intense and powerful work was first performed at the avant-garde Festival of Royan in 1977 and proceeded to be recorded several times in Poland. It developed a certain cult following in Europe, for example a section which used in Morris Pialot’s film "Police" (1990). What took this work to a much larger audience was the 1992 Elektra Nonesuch recording (q.v.) by Dawn Upshaw and the London Sinfonietta. The wide panoramic sound and resonant recording of this performance, together with the musical accessibility of the work and its capturing of the concerns of the times, gave it an appeal well beyond the usual narrow confines of contemporary classical music enthusiasts. It became part of the "sounds of the times" in the early 1990s, when political and cultural events in Eastern Europe were significant in popular consciousness: the fall of the Berlin Wall; the triumph of the Solidarity movement; the presidency of Vaclav Havel. Likewise, a whole new world of post-Soviet music and musicians reached Western audiences, this work being a part of that movement.

Although the wide appeal of this symphony gave it a popularity beyond the scope of Gorecki’s earlier - or indeed subsequent - works, it is not the sum total of his achievements as a composer. Born near the industrial town of Katowice, he studied at its conservatory, where he later joined the teaching staff; and in Paris with Olivier Messiaen. Initial experiments with serialism, such as the First Symphony, were greeted with hostility by the Communist authorities. After spending some time in Paris, he then returned for inspiration to the folk songs and the religious music of his own country for inspiration. "Three pieces in the Olden Style" (1963) - accompanying Symphony number three on the Naxos disc - and the Second Symphony (1972), a setting of texts from the Psalms, are from this period. Gorecki was at this time developing an individual style which came to full fruition in the Third Symphony. Composition was intermittent as Gorecki was also active as a teacher until 1979, when poor health meant he had to retire from this occupation.

Since this time, however, he has produced a number of significant works on a smaller scale: a harpsichord concerto; three string quartets, the first being titled "Already it is Dusk", and all of them being recorded by Kronos; "O Domine Nostra" for soprano and organ; "Lerchenmusik" for cello, piano and clarinet; and in 1993 the "Kleine Requiem für eine Polka" for piano and 13 instruments. This last is variously translated as "Requiem for a Polka", "Requiem for a Polish Woman" and "A Small Requiem for a Pauper". It is typical of his chamber music, sharing its sound-world particularly closely with "Lerchenmusik". There are also echoes here of the second (and fastest) of the "Three Pieces in the Olden Style".

The piano enters softly to open the "tranquillo" first movement, being joined delicately by strings and woodwind in their higher registers. Fast and slow sections alternate, the former bursting out of nowhere in an abrupt change of pace which contrasts with the measured slow sections, introduced variously by funereal bells and horn solos. Messiaen’s influence shows, as does that of Bartók (particularly in the clarinet solo which opens the second movement) and Stravinsky (for example when the piano leads into a fast tutti section immediately after this).

At times the work is mournful - particularly in the third movement - but at others it is surprisingly joyful for a Requiem. The alternating tempi and repetition of the thematic material suggest a cycle of life and death in which each individual plays only a small part. Hints of timelessness and eternity are here as well as both joy and sadness.

"Lerchenmusik" similarly alternates slow, gracious and dignified sections and boisterous quick ones. It is on a more intimate scale being written for the three instruments: clarinet, cello and piano. The choice of clarinet and folk music influence present in much of Gorecki’s work gives this piece something of a klezmer feel.

Gorecki also wrote significant choral works. "Miserere" (1981) was written in response to the violent dispersal by the authorities of a Solidarity protest. "Good Night" (1990) was written in memory of Michael Vyner of the London Sinfonietta, as was Hans Werner Henze’s Requiem. Recordings of both of these are available, on Elektra Nonesuch 79348-2 and Telarc 80417 respectively.

The "Symphony of Sorrowful Songs", described by Gorecki as "an intensely felt revelation of the human condition", brought him international celebrity and the opportunity to retire to his beloved Tatra Mountains. However, it is only one of a number of powerful, interesting and relatively accessible works this composer has written and the rest of his oeuvre deserves exploration.

Julie Williams




 


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