• On Tour with Górecki

It is rather encouraging that the approaching first anniversary of Henryk Górecki’s death on 12 November has occasioned a flurry of activity in this country.  Firstly, there was a Górecki edition of BBC Radio 3’s Sunday evening programme ‘The Choir’, which was broadcast on 6 November.  This series, which is devoted to all aspects of the composition and performance of choral music, broadcast the opening song from Górecki’s first collection of folksong settings, Broad Waters (1979), his most famous and most recorded a cappella piece, Totus Tuus (1987), his set of Five Kurpian Songs (1999) and Amen (1975).  And the programme also included Górecki’s earliest choral work – this time with instruments – Epitafium (1958), a stylistic (Webernian) corrective to the popular image of Górecki as a composer interested only in slow modal music.  A few weeks ago, I recorded an interview for the programme alongside Roxanna Panufnik, the daughter of the Polish composer Andrzej Panufnik.  Friends tell me that they enjoyed the programme, especially those who knew nothing of Górecki’s music and life beforehand.  Unfortunately, I missed the broadcast as I was on a coach with the Polish Radio Choir from Kraków (see below).

Secondly, I was visited late on a dark and stormy night at the end of last week, here on the Cornish moors, by a team from Polish Television in Katowice, Górecki’s home city.  They’d driven from France that day and were going on subsequently to interview Górecki’s London publishers and to speak to Bob Bibby, the Englishman who discovered that the subject of the second movement of Górecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs had not died at the hands of the Gestapo, as had generally been feared, but had lived a full life, dying in 1999 (Guardian appreciation, 25 November 2010). I settled the Polish TV director, Violetta Rotter-Kozera, in front of a roaring log fire and we had an intense and warm-hearted discussion about Górecki’s music, life, personality and temperaments.  The programme (my hour or so will be cut down to a few minutes, I’m sure!) will probably be broadcast sometime early in 2012.

Thirdly, I’ve just come back from being ‘on tour’, with the Polish Radio Choir from Kraków, a promotion initiated by Ed McKeon of Third Ear.  It was my first such experience, and probably my last.  Even though this was a short, four-concert tour, I came away with a better understanding of the many and varied pressures that performers experience when daily on the move from one venue/hotel to another.  I was full of admiration for their unflappability and good humour.  This was nowhere more apparent than shortly after the start of the concert in Durham Cathedral, that solidly magnificent example of Romanesque architecture.  The peaceful prayer that is Totus Tuus was suddenly counterpointed by a barrage of deafening booms and bangs that seemed to be coming from right outside the building.  It was like a medieval siege, a terrifying bombardment.  It went on for over 15′.  The choir didn’t bat an eyelid, no voice trembled.  While the choir had no idea what was going on, we in the audience knew well enough.  It took a bit of explaining afterwards (November 5 customs can seem very strange to visitors to the UK).

The choir had flown into Liverpool the previous day and joined the tour coach for the first concert in Durham (Saturday night), on to London (Sunday lunchtime), Bristol (Monday evening) and Liverpool (Tuesday evening).  My role was to give three pre-concert talks, each of a different duration, before the first three concerts.  The choir was very welcoming and after the concert in Bristol asked me if I would become an honorary member of its Association of Artists and Friends, which came out of the blue and was very touching.

The Polish Radio Choir, under its conductor Artur Sędzielarz, is one of those rare commodities, a choir that is funded by a broadcaster.  In the UK, we are lucky to have the BBC Singers and some other European countries still invest in similar vocal groups for the sake of repertoires past and future.  It is a very fine ensemble.  They brought 29 singers and their textural blend was second-to-none.  Equally wonderful were the choir’s harmonic voicing and unfailingly clear articulation.  Dynamically, they encompassed the quietest of pianissimos and the most emphatic of fortissimos.  I was reminded of the extremist markings that Górecki used in his vocal-instrumental Ad Matrem (1971).  On the one hand, in that score he asked for moments that were ritmico-marcatissimo-energico-furioso-con massima passion e grande tensione.  On the other hand, elsewhere he wanted tranquillissimo-cantabilissimo-dolcissimo-affetuoso e ben tenuto e LEGATISSIMO.  The Polish Radio Choir brought such contrasts fully to life, especially in the Five Kurpian Songs, and I’m sure that Górecki would have been beaming at them had he been present.

It is a strange phenomenon in Górecki’s output that he makes little difference in his compositional approach to folksong settings and to church songs.  This is particularly evident in the overwhelmingly slow tempi and sustained vocal lines.  These demand extraordinary stamina and vocal evenness, which the Polish Radio Choir delivered effortlessly.  The programme moved from Totus Tuus, through the Five Kurpian SongsThree Lullabies (1984, in Bristol and Liverpool only, although the first lullaby was sung as the encore in London), and the Song of the Katyń Families (2004).  The concerts ended with Come Holy Spirit (1988) and Amen.

For me, the outstanding piece was Song of the Katyń Families.  It lasts for barely 5′, yet its expressive power became more and more apparent at each subsequent performance.  Typically for Górecki, the piece takes a slightly oblique slant, setting a contemporary text that links the first line of the Polish national anthem with the memory of the Soviet slaughter of thousands of Polish army officers during World War II.  The piece’s lower overall tessitura made quite an impression at this stage in the concert.  When the basses dropped lower still, the harmonic resonance spoke volumes.  And when they moved down two further steps, the luminosity of the choir’s sound was breathtaking.  Song of the Katyń Families deserves as wide a recognition as Totus Tuus.

I wonder if the Polish Radio Choir’s unanimity and utter faithfulness to the spirit and letter of Górecki’s music, as well as their sensitivity to timbral colour, come not only from their collective musical sensibilities but also from their wide musical interests outside their choral work, which include – to take just three examples – musicology, cabaret and period instrument performance.  Whatever their secret ingredient is, it made for rivetting performances that elicited hugely enthusiastic audience responses.  I hope that the choir returns to the UK before too long.


The Polish Radio Choir released a 2-CD recording of Górecki’s a cappella music in 2007.  It’s on the Polish Radio label, Polskie Radio PRCD 1104-1105.  It includes Broad WatersFive Kurpian SongsCome Holy SpiritSong of the Katyń Families and Amen, plus the folksong My Vistula (1981) and Marian Songs (1985).


For Rian Evans’s review of the Bristol Concert, see The Guardian (9 November 2011).

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