Henryk GÓRECKI (1933-2010)
Little Requiem for a Certain Polka, Op. 66 (1993) [25:55]
Concerto-Cantata, Op. 65 (1992) [21:26]
Harpsichord Concerto, Op. 40 (piano version) (1980) [7:46]
Three Dances, Op. 34 (1973) [14:26]
Anna Górecka (piano); Carol Wincenc (flute)
Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra/Antoni Wit
rec. 26, 28, 29 April and 6-7 September 2011, Philharmonic Hall, Warsaw
NAXOS CLASSICS 8.572872 [69:33]
I don’t think many listeners to this new Górecki collection would readily identify the composer from the Three Dances, though once the name had been dropped many might well give out a knowing “Of course!” Written for full orchestra, each of the three pieces features short, apparently insignificant motifs that are subjected to repetition rather than development. The outer movements are lively and highly rhythmic, with more than a touch of folk style about them. Richard Whitehouse, writing in the booklet, rightly cites Stravinsky and Bartók as influences at this stage of the composer’s career.
The Harpsichord Concerto, played here in its piano version, is an extraordinary work. It lasts not quite eight minutes, but the energy never lets up and it leaves the listener – the performers too, I shouldn’t wonder – exhausted! The piano writing is hardly idiomatic, even less so for harpsichord. The work will come as a shock to those whose experience of Górecki is limited to the superb Symphony of Sorrowful Songs. I wish Richard Whitehouse had enlarged on his description of the work as a “subversive take on musical post-modernism [that] has provoked delight and dismay in equal measure.”
Concerto-Cantata is a flute concerto whose four movements are given titles evoking Baroque sacred music. This is its first recording. The work opens with five minutes or so of music for the flute alone, playing in its lowest register, very slow and repetitive, so that when the orchestra suddenly joins in with fortissimo unisons the effect is shocking. The second movement continues in the same vein – the thematic material seems even to turn around the same notes – though with an accompaniment of held chords that, compared with what has gone before, gives the impression of rich scoring. By this time ten minutes or so have passed, and I can think of few composers who would dare create so much music out of so little material. The third movement is rapid, but this too is made up of short motifs, rather than themes, endlessly repeated. A passage entirely created out of a rising interval of a third is quite engaging – I think it must be this passage that Richard Whitehouse describes as “equable” – but once you’ve heard it more than a couple of times it really doesn’t have much more to give. Then, again according to Whitehouse, “the music builds to a violent climax on full orchestra.” I was looking forward to this, but it doesn’t happen quite like that. Anything worthy of the word “climax” ought surely to be approached gradually and with progressively increasing tension. Here, there is simply a very loud passage, after which the fourth movement begins with a most disheartening return to the mood and the musical material of the second movement. The work certainly casts a powerful spell of sombre melancholy, but there simply aren’t enough notes to satisfy this listener who, despite persevering, has had more than enough long before the end.
The most recent work is the curiously titled Little Requiem for a Certain Polka, for piano and thirteen instruments. The long, slow first movement, consisting of little more than tiny phrases and chords on piano and bells, could scarcely have been by any other composer. The second movement is launched with another heart attack-inducing fortissimo unison, but the violence of the music is soon tamed by a most eloquent clarinet. The third movement, the shortest of the three, is a wild, mechanical polka, followed, after a long silence, by the tranquil finale, dominated by strings and, once again, bells. The strings settle on the final chord of D flat major more than two minutes before the end, over which bells and the soloist intone tiny fragments of themes. Górecki’s mature style is characterised by much being made from little, and such is the case here, yet the work strikes me as far more substantial and satisfying than the concerto for flute.
Anna Górecka, the composer’s daughter, turns in a roller-coaster of a performance of the concerto, with tempi substantially faster than those adopted by harpsichordist Elzbieta Chojnacka, for whom the work was written, on a Nonesuch disc. That disc also features the Requiem, but these Naxos performances are preferable, above all for the frenzied energy of the faster music. Carol Wincenc, who gave the first performance of Concerto-Cantata, is heroic. The long, ruminative opening, mostly in the bottom octave of the instrument, is beautifully controlled. Vibrato is used sparingly, and at times one might wonder if one was listening to a flute. Towards the end of the third movement she apparently no longer needs to breathe! Most importantly, though, she plays the work with total commitment, and if ultimately this listener finds the work unconvincing, it is most certainly not the fault of this brilliant player. The playing of the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra under Antoni Wit in all four works cannot be faulted.
William Hedley
An excellent introduction to Górecki or for those who want to explore further than the Symphony of Sorrowful Songs