• Górecki: Life Journey (Landor, 2009)

Górecki: Life Journey
Landor LAND 287 (2009)
Chamber Domaine, dir. Thomas Kemp

• Requiem für eine Polka (1993)
• Two Sacred Songs (1971)
• Toccata for two pianos (1955)
• Variations for violin and piano (1956)
• Four Preludes for piano (1955)
• Three Songs (1956)
• Valentine Piece for flute (1996)
• Concerto for Five Instruments and String Quartet (1957)

The Polish composer Henryk Mikołaj Górecki (b.1933) made his professional debut on 27 February 1958, the year of his 25th birthday.  He was accorded a rare honour for someone in the middle of his studies by having a public concert devoted entirely to premieres of his music, performed by members of the Silesian Philharmonic Orchestra.  Senior composers from Warsaw came to Katowice for the event, including Witold Lutosławski.

Fifty years later, some of these and more recent pieces are recorded here commercially on CD for the first time, notably the Concerto for Five Instruments and String Quartet op.11 (1957) which, unusually for performance practice in the 1950s, was played twice in the Katowice concert. While this CD highlights Górecki’s lesser-known music from his student days, it also includes works from the 70s and 90s, and it is therefore fitting that it is framed by two of his most significant pieces for chamber ensemble, the Concerto op.11 and Requiem für eine Polka op.66 (1993).

Requiem für eine Polka

The title of Requiem für eine Polka makes an enigmatic reference to a ‘polka’ – is it to the Bohemian dance or to a Polish woman?  The music itself seems to be independent of any speculation on this matter, even if its expressive world poses more questions than answers.  Requiem für eine Polka follows on from Górecki’s first two string quartets and the Concerto-Cantata in combining both introspection and exuberance.  The first movement meditates on a folk phrase that, perhaps coincidentally, recalls the opening motif of the Dies Irae chant.  Here, and elsewhere in the work, the piano is first among equals.  The tone becomes bitter-sweet with the introduction of the two violins; the movement ends in comparative, if unresolved repose.  The Allegro impetuoso-marcatissimo develops into an earthy fanfare, with short repeated phrases, coloured by low woodwind and brass, before relaxing into a slow duet for piano and clarinet.  A short chorale-like string phrase closes the movement.

The third movement swings into circus mode, with its oompah-oompah chording and perky melodic roulades.  As before, the music becomes obsessed with melodic-harmonic distortions, which a pause at mid-point fails to assuage.  A second pause leads directly into the finale, where the chorale from the second movement returns, a move which underpins the expressive variety and essential incompleteness of each of the first three movements.  The bitonal combination of chorale and bells (then horn) is reminiscent of Charles Ives, as is the resonant chordal coda.

Two Sacred Songs

The Two Sacred Songs (1971), never previously recorded, dates from what might be called Górecki’s ‘vocal’ decade, as it was in the 70s that he concentrated on music for choir. These two solo songs set texts by Górecki’s contemporary, the Polish poet Marek Skwarnicki.  The musical language of the first song, where the poet dedicates himself to God, mixes chant-like lines with a central exclamation in which the piano plays scrunched-up modal harmonies.  In the second song, the poet ‘tired of hunger’ comes to the Lord’s house for sustenance, against a backdrop of weighty piano chords.


Górecki gave the next four pieces his first opus numbers.  The Toccata for two pianos op.2 (1955) was composed before his studies in Katowice and is a vivid if brief example of Górecki’s robust muscularity.  At this time he was tearing into the stultified idioms of socialist-realist Poland, and although the Toccata uses simple ideas, including a folk tune in the middle, it is the youthful energy that stands out.  The Variations for violin and piano op.4 (1956) continues this brutalist approach, the folk-like theme being subjected to violent twists and lyrical turns.  At various times Szymanowski and Bartók are evoked, and the mood is generally dark.  Here was a student composer with a singular determination, imagination and technical assurance.  Both of these works were premiered at the 1958 concert.

Four Preludes
Three Songs

The first of the Preludes for piano op.1 (1955) is the most substantial of the four and acts like the first movement of a sonata, followed by a slow prelude, an Allegro scherzando and finale.  The keening of the Lento-recitativo has weight that belies its brief thirty two bars.  A teasing folk-based Scherzo leads directly into the Finale, whose brief moto perpetuo may well hark back to the windswept finale of the Second Sonata by Chopin, a composer whom Górecki has always admired.  The Three Songs op.3 (1956) are dedicated to the composer’s mother, who died on his second birthday.  They set texts by two of Górecki’s favourite Polish poets, Juliusz Slowacki and Julian Tuwim.  The tolling solemnity of ‘To Mother’ is countered in ‘What was this funeral bell’ by the despair of the bereaved son as he carries his mother’s coffin.  In total contrast, Tuwim’s light-hearted verse concerns the effect that a preening bird has on the equanimity of the twig on which it is perched.

Valentine Piece

Valentine Piece for solo flute, op.70 (1996), was written for Carol Wincenc, who had premiered Górecki’s Concerto-Cantata in 1993.  It might be said to pick up on the avian topic of Tuwim’s verse, although by the 90s Górecki had changed his language considerably.  Yet the idea of varied and repeated motifs, heard here in a gentle mood, has been with him since his earliest compositions.  Valentine Piece shows the reflective Górecki and has a little timbral surprise at the very end.

Concerto for Five Instruments and String Quartet

The flute also leads off the Concerto, op.11, but into a more experimental world.  The young Górecki was ahead of most of his compatriots in exploring the avant-garde music from the West that was filtering into Poland in the second half of the 1950s.  Yet he was no slavish imitator but took whatever suited his expressive purposes.  After a rangy opening and a brief explosion from the other instruments, the first movement settles into meditative if fragmented mode.  There is a more thoroughgoing dalliance with contrapuntal twelve-note writing at the start of the second movement (echoes of Webern’s Concerto for Nine Instruments), initiated by clarinet, violin and cello, although Górecki’s predilection for a decisive rhythmic pulse and chordal ideas gathers pace as the music moves inexorably towards its conclusion.  The third movement provides a momentary reduction in activity before the finale returns to the explosive energy that so characterises Górecki’s student compositions.  After the Concerto, he went on to create Epitafium (1958), Symphony no.1 (1959) and his graduation piece, the orchestral Scontri (1960), works which confirmed his position from 1958 onwards at the forefront of Polish music.

© 2009 Adrian Thomas


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