I reviewed what I think was the first ever Western recording of
this work (Stefania Woytowicz/Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra/Wlodzimierz
Kamirski – Schwann VMS 1615 – recorded 10–12 March 1982, Jesus–Christus–Kirche,
Berlin) for Records and Recording nearly thirty years ago! At
that time it seemed so exciting, a work so simple in material
and execution, so beautiful and moving, so sublime, that I was
quite “blown away” by it – to coin a phrase. Over the years I
have never lost my affection for it. My ardour, however, has cooled
somewhat, and the last time I heard the piece, which must have
been in 1994 in St David’s Cathedral in Cardiff, it still packed
a big emotional punch. In that large space the music really spoke
to a packed audience. It seems incredible that 15 years have passed
since I heard this piece for, listening to it again for this review,
it all seemed so familiar. Classic FM did its bit to popularize
the music and got the Dawn Upshaw/London Sinfonietta/David Zinman
CD into the charts. I seem to recall that a moment from the slow
movement appeared in a TV commercial (!) but apart from this latter
the music has passed me by.
listened to this new recording, several questions need to be
the work as fine a piece as it seemed to be last time I heard
it? Yes, it is, to some extent. It still works as a piece of
music, even if it seems to be somewhat twee in its emotional
world, and it doesn’t really run the gamut of emotional experience
as I once thought it did.
it speak to the listener? Yes it does, and it is, no matter
what I might think of it nearly thirty years on, quite an experience.
it worth your investing three quarters of an hour of your time
in listening to the work? Without any fear of contradiction
I have to say yes it is, for it is still a beautiful edifice,
and the sounds are quite gorgeous. There is no reason why a
new generation should not discover this work and get a huge
amount of pleasure from it.
like Ravel’s Bolero, it’s a piece you won’t want to hear
too often - there isn’t enough substance for repeated hearings,
but every so often it’s worth dipping into.
big question is do we really need a new recording of this work,
which, at one time, seemed to be ubiquitous. The answer is yes
and no. I do not know exactly how many times it’s been recorded
but, like John Tavener’s The Protecting Veil (another
meditative, easy listen, but with much less meat than this work),
it’s been done many times – as recently as 2007 by the Royal
Philharmonic Orchestra. The Atlanta Symphony is a fine band
and in this recording it sounds glorious – the strings are full
and very sumptuous, and you’d be forgiven for thinking this
to be a Symphony for Strings, for of the winds and brass – there’s
four flutes (two of them also playing piccolos), four clarinets,
two bassoons and two contra bassoons, four horns and trombones,
which add support but you’d be hard pressed to notice them –
the bassoons and contra bassoons only play 12 bars and the trombones
9 bars in the first movement only – and the general wash of
string sound is apt to make you miss the other instruments.
Although the work doesn’t require virtuoso playing – it is in
slow tempi throughout – it does need a virtuoso conductor to
make sure that the long, slow, lines are kept moving and the
piece doesn’t grind to a halt, which it could so easily do.
Runnicles directs a fine performance and allows Christine Brewer
to emote her small part when necessary. But here is the stumbling
block for me – Brewer’s voice is far too big and fruity for
this music. As the overall work is gentle and meditative the
last thing it needs is a diva giving it all she’s got. This
might not bother some, but it is wrong and the intimacy of Gorecki’s
simple settings are out of proportion with the rest of the piece.
the long run a lot will depend on what you want and how you
see this work. If you don’t know it then this will probably
please you as much as any of the other versions – you pays your
money and takes your chance – but if you want a heart-felt version
of the utmost simplicity then this isn’t for you because of
the singing. The exposition of the orchestral part, however,
is as good as any I have ever heard.