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Henryk Mikołaj GÓRECKI (1933-2010)
Ursula Kryger (mezzo-soprano)
Jadwiga Rappé (alto)
Robert Gierlach (bass-baritone)
Ewa Guz-Seroka (piano)
rec. 2019, Concert Hall of the Chopin University of Music, Warsaw
Sung texts with English translations enclosed
DUX 1592/93 [35:59 + 49:12]

Henryk Górecki belonged to the new generation of modernist Polish composers who came to the fore in the post-Stalin period in the 1950s, but he never reached the fame of Lutoslawski, Penderecki and a couple of others. This was no doubt due to his humble personality: he avoided the limelight and rarely left his home in Katowice and he was deeply religious. Another reason was that recordings of his music were fairly rare and they seldom reached the West. But suddenly, in the early 1990s when he was approaching 60, he rose to fame through the recording of his third symphony, Symphony of Sorrowful Songs. It was written fifteen years earlier to the memory of those lost during the Holocaust, but didn’t make much of a mark until the recording under David Zinman with Dawn Upshaw as soloist, became a commercial and critical success and sold more than one million copies – an unprecedented number for a 20th century symphonic work. Gorecki was as taken by surprise as the rest of the world, but said humbly: ‘Perhaps people find something they need in this piece of music [...] somehow I hit the right note, something they were missing. Something somewhere had been lost to them. I feel that I instinctively knew what they needed.’ Interestingly those who bought the disc were not the traditional classical music public in the first place but the young generation who normally fought shy of symphonic concerts. The success didn’t change Gorecki’s attitude to his composing and he continued to keep a low profile. He had by then abandoned serialism and atonalism and established his own form of minimalism and continued to do so. His choral works were distributed to the west, and readers familiar with works like Totus Tuus, written for Pope John Paul II’s third visit to Poland in 1987, and also the earlier Beatus Vir (1979), commissioned by the same pope, Karol Woytyła when he was still Cardinal of Kraków. This is beautiful, melodious music, slow and repetitive but with a hypnotic magic that surrounds the listener. Some of that hypnotism can also be found in several of the songs on the present twofer, which covers forty years of creativity, from Three Songs, Op. 3, composed by a 23-year-old student, to the Three Fragments of Stanisław Wyspiański, Op. 69 – his very last solo songs.

The three songs Op. 3 can of course be regarded as apprentice works, but they are still interesting. To Mother is melodious in a discreet manner, rather sparse in expression. A mother who looks over her shoulder, watching her son. The next song, titled Ode to Freedom, describes a funeral procession, strangely in ¾ time and it seems it is the same mother who now is dead and the coffin rests on the son’s shoulder. Why Ode to Freedom? Is death seen as liberator? We don’t get the whole story – it’s only a fragment. The third song is quite different from the previous two. Light in tone, the piano accompaniment lies mainly in the descant and the song is over in less than 40 seconds.

The two sacred songs from 1971 are also deeply contrasted. The Lento sostenuto is slow, with long silences, monotonous, expressionless until the penultimate stanza, To God on high I will tell my joy, where there is a sudden explosion in forte, then back to the prevalent mood. Maestoso is an intense, plangent cry for food. Heart-rending.

The two Lorca songs were composed almost 25 years apart. Like all the songs on the discs they are sung in Polish while the English text in the booklet is translated from the Spanish original. Nocturne excels in harsh harmonies but the vocal line is gratefully melodious. It is uncommonly intense for a nocturne and grows to a climax, which is followed by a simple postlude. Malagueña on the other hand is inward and sombre and the text says Death moves in and out of the tavern. The ‘real’ malagueña is of course a dance, derived from the fandango, but Gorecki seems to follow his own path.

In the Blessed Raspberry Songs from 1980, almost exactly contemporaneous with Beatus Vir mentioned above, we reach his minimalist phase and like his choral music this is deeply touching and beautiful. The first song, titled Blessed Raspberry Songs is sung by Robert Gierlach so exquisitely legato that I couldn’t refrain from playing it again. And the following three, with rather homogenous melodic material, gave the same impression.

On CD 2 the two songs of Juliusz Slowacki are in the same vein. Slow, soft religious, minimalist and the effect is, as I said earlier, hypnotic. They are long and stagnant but there is an inner life that keeps them moving anyway.

The three songs of Maria Konopnicka is also a juxtaposition of old and new but they seem more or less timeless. They are very simple and accessible, almost like folk songs. Readers who follow my advice to give these discs a chance should start here.

The concluding three fragments of Stanisław Wyspiański are maybe a tougher nut to crack. The whole work takes almost 24 minutes and it is again a simple structure, melodious with some sudden atonal chords and even though there are some dramatic outbursts the music relaxes into an eternal promenade through life, step by step, illustrated in the heavy chords in the piano part and occasional church bells. There are moments of light but primarily there are dark clouds hovering above this promenade. Fascinating it certainly is.

Neither of the two ladies is in the first prosperity of youth but they are deeply involved and deliver assured singing and are well versed in the musical idiom. Robert Gierlach has also been around for quite some time but his bass-baritone is still a pliant instrument and Ewa Guz-Seroka piano playing is admirable.

Admirers of Henryk Gorecki’s music should grab the opportunity to hear him in a less common genre, and lovers of art songs somewhat off the beaten track should hopefully find an unexplored path to their liking.

Göran Forsling

CD 1 [35:59]
Three Songs Op. 3 (1956)
1. To Mother [1:54]
2. What Bell of Mourning [2:39]
3. The Bird [0:39]
Two Sacred Songs, Op. 30 bis (1971)
4. Lento sostenuto [3:29]
5. Maestoso [1:46]
Two Songs of Lorca, Op. 42 (1956 & 1980)
6. Nocturne [5:05]
7. Malagueña [3:56]
Blessed Raspberry Songs. Norwid Fragments, Op. 43 (1980)
8. Blessed Raspberry Songs [4:25]
9. Each Morning, When the Shadows Recede [2:19]
10. Compassion [4:11]
11. Oh1 God … [5:59]

CD 2 [49:12]
Two Songs of Juliusz Słowacki, Op. 48 (1983)
1. In Tears, Lord, We Raise Our Hands to You [13:04]
2. Lord! Of Whom in the Heavens I Hear [6:12]
Three Songs of Maria Konopnicka, Op. 68 (1956? & 1995)
3. Through These Meadows, Across These Fields [2:08]
4. When Poland [0:57]
5. By the Window, by My Window [3:01]
Three Fragments of Stanisław Wyspiański, Op. 69 (1995-1996)
6. How Can I Find Peace [9:02]
7. Can Man be Freed from the Mayhem [4:46]
8. Poetry! You Are a Tranquil Siesta [10:02]

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