Henryk GÓRECKI (1933-2010)
The Very Best of Górecki

rec. June 1999 - May 2013, various locations in Poland
DUX 1200
[3 CDs: 76:29 + 67:24 + 60:48]

At least five other composers are available in this Dux “The Very Best of” series, including a couple that many of us will never have heard of. The presentation of this Górecki collection is austere, with a booklet essay in Polish and English that does not mention all the works included. No texts are provided for the choral items. At such a reasonable price, though, there would seem little reason to hesitate. There are some very fine performances here, but, in common with many compilations, the set has its disadvantages, and I propose to begin with those.

Broad Waters, for example, is a masterly set of five short folk song arrangements. In its repetitiveness, its reliance on simple yet poignant harmonic devices, and the wide gulf that lies between the number of notes on the page and the emotional charge of the music, it might be said to be Górecki in microcosm. The performances are magnificent, totally authentic, powerful, very moving, and certainly superior to the only other recorded performances I know, from the Lira Chamber Chorus on Nonesuch (9 79348-2). They are also recorded in a much more sympathetic acoustic. But sadly, only the first three songs are included, a grave misjudgement to my mind. Any collector wanting to get to know the whole work will therefore have to go elsewhere, which will also mean duplicating the three songs included here. Of the five Marian Songs, only one finds its way into the collection, and only two of the lovely Kurpian Songs. These are all presented in outstanding performances (the former directed by Paweł Łukaszewski, himself a distinguished composer, particularly of choral music) making the omissions all the more regrettable.

The major work in the collection, justifiably if predictably, is the celebrated Symphony No. 3, Symphony of Sorrowful Songs. Recorded live, there is a fair amount of incidental noise, including, at a key moment, something that could be a clap of thunder or, more prosaically, someone knocking something over. It is one of the marvels of this work that the textures in the long first movement don’t turn into a muddy morass; unfortunately, in this performance, they rather do. As early as the arrival of the second double-bass voice, in canon with the first, the harmonies created by the interaction of the two admittedly low-lying lines are unclear. When the violins enter, later in the movement, they are less audible that the violas before them, making nonsense of the canon. All this is more successful in the celebrated performance by David Zinman (Nonesuch, 7559-79282-2), and even more so from the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra on Naxos, conducted by Antoni Wit (8.550822). That performance also benefits from soprano Zofia Kilanovicz, whose fabulous vocal control and deep feeling for the words allow her to express the profound sadness of the work whilst at the same time preserving a noble stoicism that transcends human adversity. Barbara Tritt is clearly a fine singer, but her rather oracular style cannot match that.

These criticisms might be enough to discourage many collectors, but that would be a pity, as there are many very fine things to found in what remains. Totus Tuus, for example, one of Górecki’s most famous works, is a hymn to the Virgin, its text only fourteen words long, but spun out by Górecki into a work lasting some thirteen minutes in this reading. Performances in Western Europe rarely achieve total fidelity to the composer’s markings – most of which urge the performers to go slowly, and then more slowly still! – but the conductor here is fearless – some might say reckless – adding no fewer than four minutes to the nine achieved by the Vasari Singers in 1995 (Eminence 5 65903 2). It’s an astonishing achievement, and one that might even stretch the patience of those not fully committed to Górecki’s very special style. Then again, the conductor’s decision to insert extra silences at breathing points rather undermines the feeling of regular, slow pulse that should surely be present. Even if I shouldn’t want to listen to this performance of the work every day, it is certainly a most compelling one.

The rest of the collection is made up of instrumental and orchestral music, in very fine performances for the most part. Anyone acquiring this set whose acquaintance with Górecki’s music extends no further than the Third Symphony will be in for quite a few shocks. His Op. 1, for example, a set of four piano preludes from 1955, is as starkly modernistic as anything you might expect from the period. It receives a stunningly virtuoso performance from Magdalena Prejsnar. Górecki’s Op. 40 is billed as a Concerto for Harpsichord (or Piano) and Strings. It plays for not quite eight minutes, and is given here in its piano version. Repetition and limited melodic and harmonic means are features of the two movements, in each of which the constant, explosive energy rarely lets up. Indeed, I would fear for any poor harpsichord subjected to such sustained assault and battery. This performance, by the composer’s daughter, is essentially identical to the one she set down for Naxos in 2011 (8.572872), with an orchestral contribution that seems equal to that of the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra and Antoni Wit, though the recording sets the strings so far behind the piano that at times, in the first movement in particular, they seem to be playing from another room.

The String Quartet, “Already it is dusk” was the first of three composed for and championed by the Kronos Quartet. It is a single movement work with three distinct sections. The first presents a series of strident discords that precede, then periodically interrupt, the homophonic treatment of a slow, rather melancholy Renaissance melody. The second section, according to the booklet note, resembles “the impetuous folk music from the Polish Highlands”. Energetic melodies are accompanied by sawing, harmonically static chords that are near-exhausting to listen to and must be even more exhausting to play. The opening material returns and the work subsides into the evening evoked by the title. I haven’t heard the Kronos Quartet play the work, but this performance by the DAFÔ Quartet seems to lack nothing where the music calls for aggressive energy or tranquil lyricism.

The booklet notes describe the 1965 orchestral work, Refrain, as a “breakthrough masterpiece”, referring, I think, to the evolution of Górecki’s style from avant-garde modernism to the adoption and assimilation of the more widely familiar slow, repetitive style so clearly related to, yet different from, other schools to which we tend to assign the term “minimalism”. A breakthrough it may be, but a masterpiece? Either way, it is another work that may well try the patience of those listeners resistant to the later Górecki style. Its near-fifteen minutes are launched by a slow alternation of sombre chords punctuated by staccato notes from the brass. This is suddenly interrupted at the half-way point by a faster section that seems almost indecently influenced by the final Sacrificial Dance from The Rite of Spring. Alternating chords and clusters return to close the work. And that’s all. The Silesian Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra under Mirosłav Jacek Błaszczyk put in a deeply committed performance. I hadn’t listened to the work since I reviewed this same performance on an earlier CD (DUX 0865), and had, quite honestly, forgotten it. It made a more positive impression on me this time.

The attractive Three Pieces in Olden Style, for string orchestra, have been recorded several times, and this performance is no less successful than many others. The first of the Three Dances is short, irresistibly rhythmic, regular, driven and seemingly Stravinsky-inspired once again. The second, longer, is made of a single melodic line, extremely limited in range, played by the violins over a rocking accompaniment. The third opens with a bassoon melody in short note values over a repeated accompaniment in double values. It could almost have been written by Dukas, but the French composer would never have dared spin it out so long, Boléro-like, adding instruments as it goes and ending fortissimo. It is an extraordinary work that receives an extraordinary performance here.

The Sonata for Two Violins is a quite extraordinary work too. There is but little relief from the driving energy of the first movement. This stunning performance, recorded in a highly resonant acoustic, takes no prisoners.

Little Music No. 4, for clarinet, trombone, cello and piano, is made up of a series of short movements, violent for the most part. The last and longest of the few moments of respite is suddenly transformed into music of such hideous and shocking dissonance – I choose my words carefully – that one thinks it can only communicate some painful personal experience on the part of the composer. The work then subsides into the gloom in which it closes. Like most of the performances in this collection, it is difficult to imagine the work better done.

William Hedley

Disc 1
Concerto for Harpsichord (or Piano) and Strings (piano version) (1980) [7.53]
Anna Górecka (piano); Silesian Chamber Orchestra/Mirosłav Jacek Błaszczyk
Totus Tuus (1987) [12.59]
Silesian Philharmonic Choir/Waldemar Sutryk
Four Preludes, Op. 1 (1955) [7.49]
Magdalena Prejsnar (piano)
Three Pieces in Olden Style (1963) [9.27]
Sinfonia Academica Chamber Orchestra/Włodzimierz Promiński (leader)
Marian Songs: Ave Maria (1985) [4.28]
Warsaw-Praga Cathedral Choir “Musica Sacra”/Pawel Łukaszewski
String Quartet No. 1, “Already it is dusk” (1988) [18.39]
DAFÔ String Quartet
Refrain, Op. 21 (1965) [14.51]
Silesian Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra/Mirosław Jacek Błaszczyk

Disc 2
Three Dances, Op. 34
Silesian Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra/Mirosław Jacek Błaszczyk
Sonata for Two Violins, Op. 10 (1957) [16.05]
Krzysztof Węgrzyn (violin), Tomasz Tomaszewski (violin)
from Church Songs, two extracts [6:10]
Kraków Singers in Tribute to H M Górecki/Włodzimierz Siedlik
Little Music No. 4 (1970) [14:15]
The New Music Orchestra/Szymon Bywalec
from Broad Waters, Op. 39, three songs (1979) [8:45]
Silesian Philharmonic Choir/Jarosław Wolanin
from Five Kurpian Songs, Op. 75, two songs (1999) [6:46]
Choir of Podlasie Opera and Philharmonic in Bialystok/Violetta Bielecka

Disc 3
Symphony No. 3, Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, Op. 36 (1976) [60:48]
Barbara Tritt (soprano); Szczecin Philharmonic Orchestra & Academia Orchestra/Bohdan Boguszewski

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