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Henryk Mikolaj GÓRECKI (b. 1933)
Symphony No.3, Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, op.36 (1977) [48:56]
Christine Brewer (soprano)
Atlanta Symphony Orchestra/Donald Runnicles
rec. 10 June 2008, Symphony Hall of the Woodruff Arts Center, Atlanta, Georgia. DDD
TELARC CD80699 [48:56] 
Experience Classicsonline

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.

Having listened to this new recording, several questions need to be asked. 

Is 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. 

Does 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. 

Is 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. 

Ultimately, 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. 

The 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. 

In 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.

Bob Briggs


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