• Katowice: Skrowaczewski takes a bow

The highpoint of my trip to Katowice last month was my second visit to the new (2014) home of the Polish Radio National SO (NOSPR).  In November that year, I heard the 91-year-old Stanisław Skrowaczewski conduct Shostakovich 5.  I never imagined that I would get to hear him again, but my luck was in again this year.  On 8 April, now 92, Skrowaczewski conducted NOSPR in a luminous account of Bruckner 8.  It was breathtakingly beautiful, intense and uplifting and seamlessly shaped.

As the audience rose in a spontaneous standing ovation, I remembered my camera and shot one of the ‘curtain calls’.

• Four Videos on Górecki Symphony 4

In a week’s time, Nonesuch will release a recording of Górecki’s posthumous Symphony no 4 ‘Tansman Episodes’, both as part of a seven-CD Górecki retrospective and as a single CD.  In the run-up to the release, it has posted four short videos around Górecki’s last major orchestral work.  The YouTube originals are in larger format – click on an image or on the url below:

Mikołaj Górecki
http://www.nonesuch.com/journal/watch-mikolaj-gorecki-completing-father-henryk-symphony-4-2016-01-08
mikolaj-gorecki-interview-1200x628• = https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tt39eSv2C2Y

Adrian Thomas
• http://www.nonesuch.com/journal/watch-adrian-thomas-henryk-gorecki-symphony-4-liner-notes-2016-01-11
adrian-thomas-interview-1200x628• = https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8o4HGPphoN8

Andrey Boreyko (in German with English subtitles)
• http://www.nonesuch.com/journal/watch-conductor-andrey-boreyko-henryk-gorecki-symphony-4-2016-01-12
andrey-boreyko-interview-1200x628• = https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tlynv1YjxlY

World Premiere (excerpt from Finale)
• http://www.nonesuch.com/journal/watch-london-philharmonic-orchestra-premieres-henryk-gorecki-symphony-4-2015-01-13
lpo-gorecki-symphony-4-live-1200x628• = https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hHzfiNLR3Nc

• Górecki World Premiere, Kraków

Death of Adalbertus, Gniezno CathedralA week today – on Wednesday 4 November 2015 – the last of Gorecki’s major posthumous works will receive its first performance, in Kraków.  It is Sanctus Adalbertus, an hour-long ‘oratorio’ composed eighteen years ago to mark the assassination of St Adalbert in 997 (illustration above from the doors of Gniezno cathedral).  Its projected premiere in 1997 fell through and he used part of the score for the final movement of Salve, sidus Polonorum (2000).  This first performance follows the world premieres last year in London and Warsaw of Symphony no.4 (2006) and Kyrie (2005). The second performance will take place a week later, in Gorecki’s home city Katowice, on the eve of the fifth anniversary of his death.

Kraków is awash with posters for the concert, which also marks 70 years of PWM, the music publishers to whom anyone interested in Polish music owes a huge debt of gratitude.  Sadly, I can’t be there for this double celebration, but I was asked to write the programme note, which may be accessed here.

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• Górecki: Total Immersion (3 October 2015)

HMG Barbican cover 3.10.15Before you ask, no, I don’t know why there’s an arty picture of flowers next to a flipped photo of the composer.  And while I’m in a grump, I do not understand why, after I carefully vet a proof, a copy editor can introduce new errors or miss ones that I have pointed out.  Here they ranged from inserting a cack-handed and unnecessary ‘explanation’ (underlined here) into a perfectly clear statement and then not editing it properly afterwards – ‘… Beethoven’s Piano Sonata Op. 27 No. 1, which was described by its composer as a ‘sonata quasi una fantasia’ (ie a sonata in the style of a fantasia). ‘Quasi una fantasia’.’ – to giving one work the movement headings of another and failing to spot the auto-correct in ‘Lunam et Stellas in potestatem noxious’.  But these blemishes in the printed programme cannot detract from what was a terrific BBC SO ‘Total Immersion’ focus on Henryk Mikołaj Górecki last Saturday at London’s Barbican.

I am not accustomed to writing reviews, and this isn’t intended to be one, but I can’t pass the occasion by without thanking the BBC SO for providing this panorama from his earliest acknowledged work (Four Preludes for piano op. 1, 1955) to one of his posthumous pieces (Kyrie op. 83, 2005).  With only three concerts over a single afternoon and evening, it is impossible to represent all facets of a composer.  In this instance, however, there was a glaring gap between 1956 (Piano Sonata) and 1969 (Old Polish Music) – his most experimental years.  This was odd, given the day’s title – ‘Henryk Górecki: Polish Pioneer’.  When I saw the preliminary programme, I did suggest that the Silesian String Quartet might add Genesis I: Elementi (1962) to its recital of the first two string quartets, but nothing came of it. Could the BBC SO not have replaced the rather formulaic Old Polish Music with Scontri (1960) or Refrain (1965)? This cavil apart, the repertoire choices were excellent and gave the large and highly appreciative audiences much to relish.

I started off proceedings with an hour-long talk at 11.00, in which I deliberately complemented the day’s repertoire with discussion of other pieces.  I was told that the 80 people who turned up were double the number expected, and they seemed to enjoy the mix of musical and anecdotal observations.  The Silesian Quartet at 13.00 was in top form, bringing a grittiness and passion to the music that Górecki would have thoroughly appreciated.

Violetta Rotter-Kozera’s biographical film Please Find Henryk Mikołaj Górecki (2012) was screened at 15.00.  Its generally chronological progress was illuminated by archive clips and multiple interviews made in 2011 in the USA and Europe, although the English-language subtitling for the Polish interviewees occasionally left something to be desired. Consistently translating ‘utwór’ (work/piece) as ‘song’ was an irritating sign of the times, but the film is an honest portrayal and a welcome antidote to the Tony Palmer film of 1993.

The 17.30 concert was shared by the BBC Singers under David Hill and the pianist Emiko Edwards.  Edwards played the two student works with fire and understanding, both crisp and robust.  The BBC Singers were also in top form. Their Polish pronunciation was exemplary, as was their tonal and dynamic balance.  It was good to hear the complete Marian Songs (1985), although they are not the most interesting or varied of Gorecki’s a cappella pieces, but no. 21 of the recently published Church Songs (1986) was a good work with which to end the recital.

Those members of the audience who reached their seats early for the BBC SO’s own concert at 19.30 were treated to a reworking of Totus Tuus under the composer Tim Steiner.  The concert itself was the climax of the day, not least because its repertoire was almost entirely new to the audience, which reacted with enthusiasm.  As I intimated earlier, Old Polish Music is one of Gorecki’s most austere pieces, but the new Kyrie (first performed in 2014 and here being given its UK premiere), was a softer, more intimate work and makes one wonder what the rest of the mass commissioned by Pope John Paul II might have been like if Górecki had got round to completing it.  Mahan Esfahani was the cool and elegant soloist in the Harpsichord Concerto (1980), although I wished that the conductor, Antoni Wit, had not allowed even the reduced complement of strings to obscure the cross-metric subtleties of the solo part.  The final work, and the one that startled the most, was the Second Symphony ‘Copernican’ (1972).  My distant recollection of this rarely performed work (I’ve heard it live only twice before, at the Holland Festival in 1993 and later that same year in Katowice at a celebratory concert for Górecki’s 60th birthday) was revived by Wit, his two soloists (Marie Arnet and Marcus Farnsworth) and the BBC Chorus.  The symphony’s impact was palpable. As both it and the whole day demonstrated, Górecki was far more than just his Third Symphony, and those present recognised this.  Thank you, BBC SO!

You can catch the three concerts on the BBC as follows:

String Quartet no.2http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b06fldxd  (available on BBC iPlayer until the beginning of November)
BBC SO concert plus String Quartet no.1 in the interval: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b06flpnl  (available on BBC iPlayer until the beginning of November, presented by Petroc Trelawny, with Mahan Esfahani and myself)
BBC Singers and Emiko Edwards: this will be broadcast on Radio 3 during the last week of October and will then be available on iPlayer for 30 days

And here are a few links to the immediate reviews – both good and middling:

• George Hall: 3* http://www.theguardian.com/music/2015/oct/04/total-immersion-henryk-gorecki-review-bbcso
• John Allison: 4* http://www.telegraph.co.uk/music/classical-music/gorecki-total-immersion-barbican-review/
• Gavin Dixonhttp://www.theartsdesk.com/classical-music/total-immersion-henryk-g%C3%B3recki-barbican
• John-Pierre Joyce: 5* http://www.musicomh.com/classical/reviews-classical/bbc-so-wit-barbican-hall-london
• Richard Whitehousehttp://www.classicalsource.com/db_control/db_concert_review.php?id=13157

and added to on 11 November:

• Fiona Maddockshttp://www.theguardian.com/music/2015/oct/11/daniil-trifonov-royal-festival-hall-review-angela-hewitt-gorecki-total-immersion
Paul Driverhttp://www.thesundaytimes.co.uk/sto/culture/music/article1616360.ece (first two paragraphs, the remainder subject to subscription)

My programme essay and notes may be found by clicking on this link.

• Górecki/BBC SO: One Week To Go

This day next week – Saturday 3 October – the BBC Symphony Orchestra is hosting Henryk Górecki: Polish Pioneer, its first Total Immersion day of the 2015-16 season, with the participation of the Silesian String Quartet, the BBC Singers, Mahan Esfahani, Antoni Wit and many others.  There’s a creative project on Totus Tuus and a recent film not seen before in the UK.  I’ll be introducing the film, giving the opening talk and chatting with Petroc Trelawny for the delayed broadcast of the BBC SO’s evening concert.  The recitals by the Silesian String Quartet and BBC Singers will be broadcast live on Radio 3, while the BBC SO concert goes out on the following Tuesday evening, 6 October.

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• Total Immersion: Henryk Górecki

News_Image_BBC_SOThe Barbican Centre, London, has just announced its programme for 2015-16.  Among the events are three BBC Symphony Orchestra ‘Total Immersion’ days devoted to Henryk Mikołaj Górecki (3 October 2015), Louis Andriessen (13 February 2016) and Henri Dutilleux (30 April 2016).

The programme for the Górecki day covers chamber, choral and orchestral music.  I am particularly pleased to see the programme for the final event, when the BBC SO will be conducted – for the first time – by Antoni Wit, with a line-up of exciting soloists.  The programme is terrific: the UK premiere of Kyrie and the effervescent Harpsichord Concerto, framed by two rarely performed but characteristically gritty and luminous works from Górecki’s late 30s.  It will be quite a day.

• 11.00  Talk: ‘Henryk Górecki, Polish Pioneer’; given by me…
• 13.00  String Quartets nos 1 (1988) and 2 (1991); Silesian String Quartet
• 15.00  Film: Please Find Henryk Mikołaj Górecki (2012, dir. Violetta Rotter-Kozera); introduced by me…
• 17.30  Totus Tuus (1987), Four Preludes (1955), Marian Songs (1985), Church Songs (1986, selection); BBC Singers, conducted by James Morgan, pianist tba
• 19.00  Learning Project culmination
• 19.30  Old Polish Music (1969), Kyrie* (2005), Harpsichord Concerto (1980), Second Symphony ‘Copernican’ (1972); Mahan Esfahani, Marie Arnet and Neal Davies, BBC Symphony Chorus, BBC SO, conducted by Antoni Wit; BBC recording co-presented by me…

[October 2015: the full programme notes are available here]

• Reviews in translation (Górecki-Gibbons)

Penderecki_Gorecki_LutoslawskiFacebook friends will know that I posted last week about an unusual event at Warsaw’s Grand Theatre that was taking place on Saturday 29 November.  Here are my translations of two reviews that have since reached me (apologies for any linguistic infelicities).  I don’t usually occupy myself with reviews, as others are better placed to do them.  But the nature of the event is such that I think these opinions from Sunday 30 November may be of interest. They were written for well-regarded newspaper outlets, polityka.pl and wyborcza.pl.

I’m not going to develop the arguments here, but I may well return, in another post, to the trend of not leaving composers’ works alone.  Chopin is one thing, and his music has been used a creative resource for many years.  But in recent years in Poland it has been the music of lately deceased or living composers that has come in for treatment that ranges from ‘dressing-up’ to something more materially radical.  But that is for another day.

The first of the reviews comes from Dorota Szwarcman’s online blog for Polityka.

Three People, Two People and Spotlights (Trzech, dwóch i reflektory)

Dorota Szwarcman

The purpose of the concert at the Grand Theatre was to record it for DVD, but the audience had to endure aggressive noise emanating from antediluvian spotlights.  It was impossible to convince the organisers to do something about it.  In fact, ‘noise’ is an understatement.  It was a din.  It impeded hearing the performances, was superimposed on them and distorted them, especially in the quiet moments. I understand that it will be filtered out in the recording, but why then invite an audience?  They could have recorded it in rehearsal.  And so we felt simply as if we’d been given a kicking.

OK, but we must consider the pieces.  The ‘Three People’ are Penderecki, Lutosławski and Górecki.  As the only surviving member of this trio, it fell to Penderecki to conduct the works of all of them.  There was a continuation of the Penderecki-Greenwood project (48 Responses to Polymorphia was performed again), extended by the new Réponse Lutosławski by Bryce Dessner; plus works by the members of Radiohead and The National (the ‘Two People’), conducted by Bassem Akiki.  And NOSPR [National Symphony Orchestra of Polish Radio] played.

What can one say about these pieces?  My reflection is that people who play music every day which is completely different, sharper, become awfully polite when they suddenly enter the classical world.  Isolated timid clusters are lost in a sea of wistful tonal fragments, this tonality being slightly disturbed, so that everything is not just repeated literally, but is still all very discreet. While the relationship between Greenwood’s piece and Penderecki’s is very obvious – its successive fragments originate in Polymorphia‘s famous final C-major chord – it is hard to see what links Dessner’s composition with Lutosławski’s Funeral Music, perhaps two notes, not more.  It is easier to hear connections with Philip Glass, who has nothing in common with Lutosławski.  The responses therefore do not constitute in either case a counterbalance to the ‘questions’, i.e. the works by Penderecki and Lutosławski.

Another thing: the visuals were terribly distracting, supposedly attractive and interesting (made by the same people who have been in charge of the staging of concerts at Wrocław’s Centenary Hall), but here too expressive and riveting.  It was hard to take in the music at the same time.  There may be some for whom it was easier…

The second half was another story.  Starting with the visuals themselves, which were the work of John Milton, who is in charge of the packaging and staging for Portishead concerts, and ending with the introduction of Beth Gibbons in Symphony of Sorrowful Songs.  In an “excuse me for living” position (I thought that, in her situation, she was being unusually shy, but it turns out that she is always like this), she sat on a chair and sang into a microphone.  It has to be said that she had been really well coached by an expert – after all, she does not read music, knows no Polish and, moreover, has never sung in any language other than English, and furthermore has never sung with an orchestra [AT: although she and Portishead have performed with a backing orchestra]. Somehow she made it happen, even if in some places she had to sing down an octave; she sang in her own way, just as she does with Portishead, the voice slightly murmuring, slightly whining, but clear for all that…  The greatest advantage of this singing was its sincerity and directness – she knew what she was singing about and tried to express it; one may say that her singing was ‘sorrowful’ in reference to the work’s title, though this term is ambiguous.  The visuals underlined the claustrophobic-despressive mood, showing a wall of lichens, murky corridors without end, guttering candles.  All in all, I don’t know the reason for this experiment, because Górecki’s Third Symphony has just no need of popularisation, but apparently foreign concert halls are already interested in this concert.  Well, let’s see.

The second review, also dated 30 November 2014, is by Anna S. Dębowska for Wyborcza.

Anglo-Saxons from the World of Pop in a Concert with Music from the Polish Classics (Anglosasi ze świata popu na jednym koncercie z muzyką polskich klasyków)

Anna S. Dębowska

Radiohead, The National and Portishead connected with Polish music in a National Audiovisual Institute project.  The result was at least debatable, but what kind of art is without controversy?  A review of Saturday’s concert in the Grand Theatre – National Opera in Warsaw.

Commissioned by the National Audiovisual Institute, Jonny Greenwood and Bryce Dessner composed short pieces for string orchestra inspired by Krzysztof Penderecki’s Polymorphia from 1961 (Greenwood) and by Witold Lutosławski’s Funeral Music from 1958 (Dessner).  Beth Gibbons sang the soprano part in Henryk Mikołaj Górecki’s Third Symphony ‘Symphony of Sorrowful Songs’ (1976).  The performances of the Polish music were conducted by Krzysztof Penderecki and the new pieces by Bassem Akiki, the young Lebanese-Polish conductor who made his debut at Wrocław Opera a few years ago.  The National Symphony Orchestra of Polish Radio played.

That about sums it up.  The idea came from Michał Merczyński, head of the National Audiovisual Institute, the artistic selections made by Filip Berkowiczm director of the Kraków festival Sacrum Profanum. “I’m very interested in bringing together the worlds of serious music and ambitious entertainment”, he told Wyborcza. “Such collaborations provide an extraordinary boost to the participants, for their work reaches a whole new audience.  I am glad that Michał Merczyński has once more invited me to collaborate and again allowed me to stir it.”

Water and Fire One Year Later

Indeed, Berkowicz has stirred things up.  He’s already done it many times.  It is sufficient to recall projects like ‘Penderecki Reloaded’ – initiated jointly with Merczyński, processing the classics through performances by Greenwood and Aphex Twin – or ‘Polish Icons’ – with Skalpel remixing Penderecki, Górecki and Lutosławski at Sacrum Profanum [AT: 2014].  But this is nothing compared with Beth Gibbons, the vocalist with the trip-hop group Portishead, cast in the oratorio-cantata soprano role in Górecki’s Third Symphony.

Saturday’s concert was due to happen a year ago during the jubilees of the three great Polish composers.  I do not think that the change of date influenced its reception.  For some it was from start to finish a proposition that was hard to take, while others saw in it an interesting attempt to link different worlds, for which the blurring of boundaries is a trump card.  For others it is an alarming attempt to tamper with copyrighted musical texts.

That is why Gibbons fans reacted enthusiastically, in contrast to classical music connoisseurs, who took the thing with chilly scepticism (the family of Henryk Mikołaj Górecki disassociated themselves from the project). This attempt to reconcile fire with water convinced me more, however, than the compositional proposals of Greenwood and Dessner, who entered too willingly into the role of imitators.

Simple and Authentic Beth Gibbons

Accepting Gibbons in the Górecki demanded openness and a reorientation to a different kind of vocal expression.  It is difficult to measure the star of Portishead as a classical singer and compare her to Stefania Woytowicz, Dawn Upshaw or Zofia Kilanowicz, great performers of the Third Symphony.  Not that vocal strength, that range or that technique.  That is not what it is about.  Despite obvious vocal shortcomings, she found herself surprisingly at home in the atmosphere of Górecki’s music, inspired by the lament of a mother in pain at the death of her son.  The trump card was the musicality, simplicity and authenticity of a non-professional.  She was herself – she sang sitting at the microphone, sheltering behind her hair like an introvert. She must have put in a great deal of work on her Polish, because it sounded impeccable at times.  The high notes were evidently problematic for her, but the amplification helped in producing them.

It was an interesting experiment, but one hopes even so that Gibbons does not spawn imitators (Bjork once turned down an invitation to sing the Third Symphony).  Górecki is only superficially simple and wistful, not suitable for the stage.  Rather he did not approve the use of his music for other purposes, as when he did not permit the Polish distribution of the film in which the director Tony Palmer illustrated the Third Symphony with images of war.

Rockers Write in a Twentieth-Century Fashion

In the case of Greenwood’s and Dessner’s meeting with the classics there was nothing new.  The commissioning of orchestral works from them was the result of compositional try-outs by both musicians. Dessner has had a classical training and has written for the Kronos Quartet.  It is great that someone suggested Lutosławski to him, although Philip Glass was a greater influence in his piece (Réponse Lutosławski) than the great Pole, except maybe for the cluster from Funeral Music.  Even so, the Dessner seems a more interesting, more independent composer that Greenwood with his 48 Responses to Polymorphia, in which he drew liberally from the arsenal of avant-garde and sonoristic devices from the second half of the twentieth century.

Time will tell whether Dessner’s piece will be an encouragement to fans of The National to reach for Lutosławski.  If that happens, there awaits them a meeting with unusually complicated musical material of outstanding expressive qualities.  Saturday’s performance of Funeral Music once again showed that it is a masterpiece.  Likewise, Polymorphia under the baton of its creator, Krzysztof Penderecki, has lost nothing of its freshness and acuity.

It was moving that these pillars of Polish music (Polymorphia, Funeral Music, Symphony of Sorrowful Songs) sounded out under the baton of Krzysztof Penderecki, the only performer who had been a witness and co-originator of the era in which these works were created.  He naturally became the keystone of all of the concert’s themes.  Recruiting him for this project was Michał Merczyński’s and Filip Berkowicz’s unquestionable success.

The concert will be released on DVD by NiNA.

 

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