Henryk Gorecki: Symphony no. 3 "Sorrowful Songs" and Gorecki: Symphony no. 3
by Mark Nowakowski
As a young composition student, I often felt oppressed by the modernist ethic I was being taught. Presented with the vision that the sole language of modern music was abstraction and serialism, I began to doubt whether my kind of music had a place in the world. Browsing through the CD racks, I stumbled across the Third Symphony by Gorecki, and it literally saved my creative life. Since this time, I have felt indebted to present the incredible work of this iconic Polish composer to lovers of new music, as
The Symphony No. 3 (Symphony of Sorrowful Songs) is one of the best-selling pieces of the 20th century, while also being one of the most recorded works of the modern era. Reverent, tragic, and unflinching in its post-modern stylings, the third symphony earned composer Henryk Gorecki as much criticism as it did praise.
The work begins with a slow theme in the basses, churning upwards and gathering momentum as Gorecki slowly adds the upper voices in perfect succession. The end result is a towering contrapuntal statement, flowing in like the tide, and receding to reveal the first heartbreaking intonation of the Soprano, on the word "Synku" (my son.) Once Gorecki seizes us, the steady flow of intense emotion never gives way. While these pieces are called "sorrowful songs," they could just as easily have been called "songs of hope," as Gorecki does not merely witness the atrocities he saw, but provides us with a musical means to transcend them.
It is difficult to pick the best recordings of this work, allowing as it does for great breadth of interpretation within its relatively simple framework. The most popular recording is that of Dawn Upshaw singing with the London Sinfonietta, released by Elektra records. This is certainly the defining recording of the piece, as well as the one which popularized the work in the western world. Upshaw is characteristically brilliant and moving, and the Sinfonietta plays with the clarity one would expect of a fine English ensemble, though one might take issue with the intonation issues in the double-bass section. Being the champion of new music that she is, it is of little surprise that Upshaw's performance is so absolutely translucent and moving.
One may be taken aback, then, at the different quality of the second recording profiled in this review. The Warsaw Chamber Orchestra plays the work at a considerably slower tempo, while soprano Joanna Kozlowska presents a much darker tone along with comparatively elongated phrasing. Not surprisingly, this rendition of the third symphony is the more "Slavic" of the two recordings, with the musicians perhaps more culturally equipped to draw forth the distinctly Polish pathos inherent in Gorecki's musical expressions. Some listeners have reacted positively to this interpretation, while others may find the work entirely too slow as compared to the Elektra recording.
As staunch supporter of Gorecki's work, I would suggest that -- just like the enjoyment of any other great work -- to own both of these recordings is really the best way to learn about and enjoy the work. If you really grow to love the work, you should also look into the Tony Palmer film built around the piece (also reviewed in our music section.) A must-have for every music collection.
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