I'm prepared to bet that there will be more than one person who buys this under the illusion that this is music by Henryk Górecki, whose Symphony No. 3 “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs” was a huge hit a while ago and made the name Górecki something of a household feature in contemporary classical music. Mikołaj is Henryk’s son, and even if you made your purchase in error I very much doubt you will be disappointed by what you hear - he’s a chip off the old block.
Mikołaj Górecki’s work is superbly crafted at the very least, and at its best can sound inspired and inspiring. There are numerous characteristic Polish features with which you will be familiar if you know the music of Panufnik and others, such as the strong rhythmic impulse in faster movements, and certain rich harmonic and melodic fingerprints which, when they emerge, are like putting on a favourite old sweater. You will feel yourself embraced by these in the opening Lento of the Concerto Notturno, which is played with deep expression by Piotr Plawner. Harmonies build and resolve over arcs and progressions which hint at pastoral relaxation, but are always penetrated with heightened emotion through their added notes and enhanced octave sonorities. The central Allegro is punchy and striking, but the climax for me is the final Molto lento, which delivers achingly beautiful polytonal moments and chromatic elaborations over which the soloist floats with ethereal majesty.
This CD is full of good things and there’s not a weak piece to be heard anywhere. The Overture has a bracing cinematic quality amongst those driving rhythms and syncopations, and this is a feature which I also sense in the Divertimento, which has a gorgeous but acutely film-like opening movement - perhaps with a hint of the later more sentimental Michael Nyman. The central Con moto has the feeling of a mildly perilous journey embarked upon while the ‘love theme’ element remains, and the finale is one of the few movements in this programme which I would suggest has a slight element of cheese in the theme which starts up just after a minute in. This is all still excellent stuff and packed with interest, and every bit as easy to assimilate as dad’s big symphony.
The Three Fragments opens with some moments which suggest the influence of Messiaen, something which was only fleetingly passed and not mentioned in a Turangalila upward sequence somewhere in the Divertimento. Here, the Lento chords move through the kind of colours you hear in Messiaen at his most divinely ecstatic, and Górecki uses these harmonic spectra to draw out some lovely progressions. Once again in the slow-fast-slow pattern the rhythmic action of the central Ritmico is another cinema chase sequence, while the final Lento does something similar to the finale of the Concerto, adding layers to the wonders conjured by the first movement, and none the worse for that. A change in instrumental colour is welcomed in the Three Intermezzi, which has the unusual concertino setting of two clarinets and string orchestra. Here the opening is a fairly complex but brief and witty statement, the clarinets joining and then flying away from their accompanists with moments of faux-mourning and ironic laughter. The central Espressivo is lovely; once again with a distinct flavour of Messiaen which can only be enhanced by the ‘end of time’ sound of the clarinet, but is certainly something which owns its space with confidence of form and which resonates in the memory. The final Molto animato is another feather in the soloists’ caps, with virtuoso highs taken with great élan.
There is plenty of information on the players, orchestra and composer in the booklet, but we’re kept guessing as to the actual music. We can indeed make an educated guess at the thoughts behind the moving Farewell, but whatever the impetus its tapestry of impassioned string sound is a very fitting conclusion to a superbly performed and very well recorded programme of a highly talented composer’s music. If you like the Polish ‘sound’ then this will soon become a favourite amongst others in your collection, and I will certainly be looking out for more from Mikołaj Górecki.