• BBCSO Górecki: Choral-Orchestral Concert

HMG Barbican cover 3.10.15Old Polish Music
Harpsichord Concerto
Symphony no.2 ‘Copernican’
19.30, 3 October 2015

Mahan Esfahani, Marie Arnet, Marcus Farnsworth, BBC SO & Chorus, Antoni Wit


Old Polish Music (1969)

It is now well-known that Górecki had a fascination with music of the past, whether it was Polish hymns, Chopin, Beethoven and folk music in the Third Symphony or Szymanowski and Wagner in the Fourth.  But at the time of Old Polish Music this was something relatively new in his music.  There had been a time, not too far distant, when composers like Andrzej Panufnik (Old Polish Suite, 1950) and Tadeusz Baird (Colas Breugnon, 1951) either arranged old Polish music or emulated its styles, although that was partly enforced by restrictive government arts policy.  Once the new wave of Western-influenced avant-garde music erupted in the late 1950s and early 1960s, such ideas became totally irrelevant.  In Górecki’s case, he became the wild child of his generation, outdoing Penderecki in works like Scontri and Genesis I-III.  With Refrain (1965) there was a hint of chant-like inspiration, but it was with Old Polish Music – with its specific line-up of brass and strings – that he broke new ground in the Polish music of the time, bringing the antique and the avant-garde together on a large canvas.

There are three principal ideas, each clearly demarcated in instrumentation, motivic content, texture and dynamics, and all contributing to a gradual if austere build-up of extended soundblocks over the course of the piece.  The first – fanfare-like, ff, with ornamental flourishes – is presented on trumpets and trombones, growing from a single duet to four pairs on successive appearances.  Górecki distilled the melodic material from one of the earliest surviving pieces of medieval Polish polyphony, the organum Benedicamus Domino.

The second idea belongs to the strings.  Initially, they act as placid resonators of the final notes of the trumpet and trombone fanfares.  But after the fourth group fanfare, the strings do something different: they calmly enunciate a very slow, chorale-like idea, sul ponticello.  Here, Górecki has taken the tenor line of a Renaissance prayer that he had used once before and would use again in his First String Quartet (for details see the note for this afternoon’s concert).  Górecki treats it in a contemporary, quasi-serial fashion, and on subsequent appearances it grows from the initial two lines on violins and violas to twelve lines utilising the complete body of strings.

In the meantime, this intercutting between strings and the trumpets and trombones is supplemented by the third idea. This is given to the five horns, fff, whose burbling but relatively amorphous character was characteristic of textural composition of the period.  The brass eventually combine and announce the twelve-voiced matrix of the string chorale, now played ordinario and gradually moving from its accustomed low dynamic to a tutti ffff that announces the coda.  This presents the original Benedicamus Domino on two trumpets, sotto voce, ‘with no shading at all’, cushioned by a step-by-step accumulation within octave G naturals of the notes of the organum.  With hindsight, this coda, as well as other aspects of the piece, anticipates his next orchestral pieces, Canticum graduum (1969) and the Second Symphony (1972).

Kyrie (2005)   UK premiere

When Górecki died, it was known to the family and his publishers that there were several compositions in various stages of completion.  The major work was the Fourth Symphony, whose orchestration was finished by his son Mikołaj, a fine composer in his own right, and which was premiered by the London PO at London’s Royal Festival Hall in April 2014.  Another work was Kyrie, which was premiered in Warsaw the same month.  Intended as part of a large-scale Mass that was never realised, Kyrie was virtually ready for publication and so required little attention from the composer’s son.  Górecki had dedicated the work to Pope John Paul II, who had commissioned the Mass in the late 1990s.  The Pope’s enquiry during an audience in 2003 spurred Górecki to work on the project, but John Paul II died in 2005 before even the Kyrie had been completed.

The mood is sombre, underpinned by the low-register tolling on piano, tam-tam and bass drum.  The middle strings and tubular bells add plangent counterpoints and the cellos contribute an unexpectedly lyrical idea.  At the first climax, the choir exclaims ‘Kyrie’, and the process begins again in a developed version.  (There is a distinct connection atmospherically with Ad Matrem of 1971.) At the climax of the second phase, the music suddenly achieves a kind of enlightenment.  It becomes tonal and calm for the ‘Christe eleison’, in the manner of one of Górecki’s church songs.  After recalling the funereal opening, Górecki springs a little surprise – a short choral phrase to the text ‘Panie zmiłuj się nad nami’, the Polish equivalent of ‘Kyrie eleison’.  The work ends with a sustained A major chord pricked in characteristic fashion by a mildly dissonant ostinato.

Harpsichord Concerto (1980)
  1. Allegro molto
  2. Vivace

If the common perception of Górecki during the phenomenal success of the Third Symphony in the mid-1990s was that his music was all long, slow and meditative, then the lesser-known Harpsichord Concerto is an ideal and still necessary corrective.  Here is a work that is fizzingly fast, its two movements lasting just nine minutes.  In fact, it is the Third Symphony that is the exception rather than the Harpsichord Concerto.  A glance back to the dynamism of the First Symphony and Scontri or forwards to the first two string quartets, Concerto-Cantata (1992) or Little Requiem (1993) reveals Górecki in all his forthrightness and jollity.

The Harpsichord Concerto was written for and dedicated to the Polish harpsichordist Elżbieta Chojnacka.  Part of the work’s character stems from that association and Górecki described it as a ‘wybryk’ (frolic, caprice).  He went on to outline its structure:

The first movement is a constant two-voiced superimposition of cantus firmus (strings) and figuration (solo), while the second turns the duality around to create juxtaposed tutti-solo contrasts.  Often a simple idea lies behind a major decision.

The polarity also lies in the choice of tonality – D Aeolian followed by D major – and in what may be described as the sacred chorale prelude of the first movement set against the secular round dance of the second.

The Allegro molto has a further characteristic – it is the string orchestra that unfolds the sustained, chant-like phrases while the soloist, rather than taking the limelight, provides a running harmonic commentary.  The central section rather brutally interrupts this pattern thematically and chromatically, and this then colours the return to the opening idea.

An unexpected landing on D major heralds the second movement, which follows without a break.  For the first time in his tonal-modal period, Górecki throws caution to the winds as the harpsichord embarks on a helter-skelter dialogue with the strings (not for nothing is the movement often encored).  Replete with folk-related sharpened 4ths, Baroque mordents and jazzy syncopations, this madcap music races towards a clattering chordal sequence and a cheeky look back at the first movement.

Symphony no.2 ‘Copernican’ (1972)

Górecki was by nature a ponderer, both on the large and small scale, which is why works often took a long time to materialise or were shelved until later.  When he was asked by the Kościuszko Foundation in New York to write a work to celebrate the 500th anniversary in 1973 of the birth of the Polish astronomer Mikołaj Kopernik (better known outside Poland as Nicolaus Copernicus, 1473-1543), he felt both honoured and daunted, yet he met the deadline. How was he to encompass the scale of his countryman’s shattering discovery that the earth moves around the sun? He found his solution during a conversation with the Polish film director, Krzysztof Zanussi, who observed that Copernicus’s work represented ‘one of the greatest tragedies in the history of the human spirit: an entire system of thought, the way of thinking on which man’s attitude to the reality out there was based, was in ruins. We were no longer the centre of the universe, we became nothing.’  It was then, Górecki explained, ‘that the entire subject became clear to me and obvious in its musical form.  Hence the duality of the two-movement Symphony: first the whole mechanism, let us say, of the world, followed by contemplation.’

Górecki opted not for a purely orchestral palette but one involving solo voices and choir.  He chose his texts sparingly and with care.  The ‘mechanism of the world’ is represented by excerpts from the Book of Psalms: ‘Deus. Qui fecit caelum et terram. Qui fecit luminaria magna’.  Although the chorus does not enter with these words until the end of the first movement, their rhythm inspired the thundering orchestral chant that inaugurates the symphony. Górecki’s mechanism is both grinding and awesome and the marking in the score indicates his determination to create an overwhelming impact: con massima passione – con massima espressione – con grande tensione – ma ben tenuto.  His means are characteristically straightforward – the punctuated harmonies are whole-tone, but the melodic movement is mostly in semitones and minor thirds – and they owe much to Refrain.

As in Old Polish Music, Górecki’s initial soundblock is parried by two others.  The first similarly acts as a sustained resonance of the whole-tone harmonies (tranquillissimo – cantabilissimo – legatissimo).  The other texture – paralleling the style and function of the horns in Old Polish Music – develops through the brass until it leads to a climactic development and the culminating entry of the chorus.

The second movement (sostenuto – contemplativo) underlines its change of perspective by being based not on rotating whole-tone chords but on more stable (black-note) pentatonic clusters and, eventually, diatonic triads.  It is nevertheless still music in transition, with the solo baritone staying with the same text and manfully, tortuously, striving up to his highest register.  At this point, the solo soprano brings a beatific calm, her rising scale against an A flat major chord clearly anticipating the soundworld of the Third Symphony.  A particularly radiant moment comes when the two soloists introduce the next psalm lines in octaves: ‘Solem in potestatem diei. Lunam et stellas in potestatem noctis’.

Two further stages remain in reaching a transcendental comprehension of Copernicus’s discovery.  Firstly, the chorus sings one the astronomer’s own texts: ‘Quid autem caelo pulchrius, nempe quod continet pulcra omnia?’ (What indeed is more beautiful than heaven, which of course contains all things of beauty?).  Górecki matches this with the music of a mid-15th-century vocal fragment in the (white-note) Dorian mode offset by a (black-note) cluster in the strings, thereby encompassing all twelve chromatic pitches for the first time.  It is a moment of quiet wonder that redresses the monumental machinations of the first movement.  The second and final stage is purely orchestral.  It slowly rises and sets, like the sun, as if to symbolise the truth of Copernicus’s astronomical vision.

© 2015 Adrian Thomas

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