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Henryk Mikolaj GÓRECKI (b.1933)
Life Journey
Requiem Für Eine Polka Op.6 (1993) [21:54]
Valentine Piece Op.70 (1996) [4:51]
Two Sacred Songs Op.30 (1971) [5:08]
Toccata for Two Pianos Op.2 (1955) [3:37]
Variations for Violin and Piano Op.4 (1956) [9:25]
Four Preludes for Piano Op.1 (1955) [8:07]
Three Songs Op.3 (1956) [4:46]
Concerto for 5 instruments and String Quartet Op.11 (1957) [11:57]
Chamber Domaine/Thomas Kemp
rec. Potton Hall, Suffolk, 29 June-1 July 2008
Experience Classicsonline

This fascinating release takes a good look at Henryk Górecki’s earlier work, as well as two works from the 1990s, one of which is a modern classic in my opinion, albeit a somewhat eclectic one. If you are unfamiliar with Górecki’s work, you may well have heard of his Symphony No.3, the ‘Symphony of Sorrowful Songs’ of 1976. This work’s wide appeal saw its use in films, and the Nonesuch recording with Dawn Upshaw and David Zinman sold hugely, although I much prefer the singing of Zofia Kilanowicz on Belart.

The Nonesuch label crops up again with its 1995 London Sinfonietta recording of Requiem Für Eine Polka. Direct comparison with this new recording has been an intriguing experience, though I’m hard pushed to indicate a clear winner. You won’t find Chamber Domaine lacking in impact or intensity, but the London Sinfonietta does attack the heavier, post-minimalist passages with a trifle more abandon, makes one laugh a fraction louder at the oompah circus crassness of the third movement. This destroys the marvellous atmosphere of the slow coda to the second movement, introducing a chorale which reminds me a little of that other musical wonder, ‘The Singing of the Titanic’ by Gavin Bryars. I suspect that this section of the music has been tweaked a little in the Nonesuch recording, but even if not it does bring out the goose-bumps more than in this rather drier production – fine as it is.

Even if you already have Requiem Für Eine Polka, this new disc now takes us into realms as yet unexplored, with five world premiere commercially available recordings of everything bar the Toccata and the Four Preludes. The Valentine Piece is a nice, largely contemplative piece for solo flute with a few recurring bird-like motives, and a strange little ‘timbral surprise’ just at the end, to which I can imagine my mate Mike of Wigan saying, “there’s somebody at the door, Marjorie..!” The Two Sacred Songs set poems by Marek Skwarnicki, a contemporary of Górecki. The composer’s predilection for close intervals and limited thematic means create a powerful atmosphere and intensity, and the chant-like singing lines reflect the songs’ relation to orthodox religious ecstasy.

Górecki was only 25 and still a student when he was given the rare honour of an entire concert of his music in Katowice in 1958, and the rest of the works on the disc come from this period. The Toccata for two pianos actually comes from before his studies in Katowice, and while stronger on youthful energy than subtlety it does show the composer’s incredible creative virtuosity. Adrian Thomas’s booklet notes describe both this and the Variations for Violin and Piano as brutalist in approach, and there is no denying the passionate way in which Górecki deals with his folk-like materials. Echoes of Bartók and Szymanowski can be detected, but this remains a darkly expressive and substantial piece which holds its own even 50 years on.

The Four Preludes for Piano together form Górecki’s Opus 1, and the opening Molto agitato stamps a closely argued imprint on the listener from the outset. Close chromaticism and contrasts of moody lyricism and athletic moto-perpetuo passagework set the scene for the other, shorter preludes, and with intervallic and rhythmic similarities throughout the preludes they could with ease be re-titled as a single sonata. The Three Songs Op.3 is dedicated to Górecki’s mother, who died when he was 2. The texts of the first two songs are moving memorials related by the tolling of funeral bells and spectral imagery, and the third takes us away with the more positive flight of a small bird.

The final work on this impressive disc is the substantial but nonetheless compact and intensely economic Concerto for 5 Instruments and String Quartet Opus 11. In this piece Górecki shows himself more prepared than many to explore the avant-garde experimentalism which in Poland at that time was flowing in from the West. This is seriously serialist work, with angular intervals and sparse instrumentation which has its roots in the subtle world of Webern. Górecki’s individuality comes through with the kind of violent energy and extremes of contrast already heard in some of the other student works, but without knowing I would bet few would guess the originator of this work.

This is a superbly performed and recorded release which gives us a useful new view of Górecki’s creative world. His later pioneering of the ‘new simplicity’ which brought us composers such as Arvo Part and others is little in evidence here, with only the later Requiem showing how Górecki used his focused and sparing means to greatest expressive effect. Górecki’s defiance of oppression and injustice can be felt almost physically in some of these works, and I for one am glad to have been introduced to this composer’s serious early development.

Dominy Clements


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