Bolesław SZABELSKI (1896-1979)
Concertino (1955) [18:42]
Henryk GÓRECKI (1933-2010)
Refrain for Orchestra (1965) [14:56]
Eugeniusz KNAPIK (b. 1951)
Islands (1983) [17:31]
Silesian Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra/Mirosłav Jacek Błaszczyk
rec. June and September 2011, Concert Hall, Katowice, Poland
DUX DUX0865 [51:09]

Katowice is the third most populous city in the historic region of Silesia, most of which, like Katowice itself, is situated in Poland. Each of the three composers represented here studied and later taught at the Katowice Music Academy. Bolesław Szabelski was Górecki’s teacher, Górecki in turn taughtEugeniusz Knapik. Zbigniew Raubo, the pianist on this disc, and Mirosłav Jacek Błaszczyk, the conductor, were also both students who later returned to teach at the Academy. The disc can fairly be seen as a celebration of that distinguished and highly respected establishment.
Szabelski’s Concertino is in three movements, the first of which is based on the busy, rhythmic figure that opens the work. A calmer second subject appears, but the rapid music soon returns and dominates the rest. The music is closer to the neo-classical style of Stravinsky than it is to the Germanic counterpoint of Hindemith. The movement’s ending is a complete surprise, a sudden common chord that seems to arrive from nowhere. The slow movement is quite different, closer to the neo-romanticism evoked in the booklet notes, and with echoes of Bartók. The finale attempts to combine both worlds, and succeeds rather well: it is the most successful movement of the three. All told, this is an engaging work that you will probably want to come back to. In no way is it a concerto, though, despite its title. The piano has an important role but barely qualifies for the title of “solo instrument”. “Concertante” would be a more apposite term.
Like many music lovers I was seduced by Górecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs when Classic FM made its composer famous. I love it to this day: it is an inspired and courageous work of genuine power that, in a fine performance - preferably with a Polish or at least a Slav soprano - can be exceptionally moving, and that in spite of the fact that there are so few notes in it. Since then I have listened to many Górecki works in the hope of discovering something at least as satisfying. Sadly, Refrain for Orchestra is not it. The work begins with a held unison that leads to a rocking figure in the strings - though the word “rocking” conveys too much the notion of activity - in a motif that gradually thickens into clusters and is strangely punctuated by staccato chords from the brass. This continues for eight long minutes until there is a faster section wherein further chords alternate between the wind and string sections of the orchestra. There are also some dramatic brass trills. A gong stroke puts paid to this, and after a while the opening rocking figure returns, as does the very first unison and a single, staccato peck from the brass. I may be missing something here, but there seems to be absurdly little musical material in this work. With one or two exceptions I have been progressively more disappointed with each new Górecki work I have heard, and this one plumbs new depths.
Islands comes complete with a commentary from the composer in which he tells us that we shouldn’t listen to it with too narrow an interpretation of its title in our minds. “We are all on an island which drifts somewhere in the universe,” he tells us, and goes on “every human being is an island as well…” As is often the case with such works, I can discern no audible connection between the title and the music itself in any case, so whether the composer agrees with John Donne or not seems to be irrelevant. The music is slow and reflective for much of the time, but compared to the Górecki it’s packed with incident. Two lengthy solos punctuate the action, one for violin and the other for double bass that begins in the instrument’s highest register. (Only strings are used, I think: I haven’t see the score.) The composer apparently aims to react against the Polish avant-garde movement of the sixties, personified by such figures as Penderecki - who later reacted against it himself. On the whole he has succeeded here, and there are many passages of strikingly sonorous beauty, including the sumptuous two-part writing that opens the work and returns later. But there are a few empty gestures too, and Tomasz Jeż, in a long, important but frequently impenetrable note in the booklet, is surely being disingenuous when he says that the music “speaks to the listener in a similar manner than [sic] the music of late Beethoven, Brahms, Mahler”.
I’m always sorry to react negatively to new works, but there it is, and others will hear this music differently. The orchestra plays magnificently and, as one might expect, seem totally convinced by the music. They give performances of one hundred per cent commitment. The recording is excellent.
William Hedley 

A disc in celebration of the Music Academy of Katowice.