• Górecki: Old Polish Music (Argo, 1993)


Górecki: Old Polish Music, Totus Tuus, Beatus Vir
Argo 0289 4368 352 4 (1993)
Nikita Storojev, Prague Philharmonic Choir, Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, cond. John Nelson

• Old Polish Music (1969)
• Totus Tuus (1987)
• Beatus Vir (1979)


Henryk Mikołaj Górecki (born 1933) is one of Poland’s most distinguished composers.  Yet, until a few years ago, he remained more or less unknown outside his own country.  With the release of a number of recordings in the ‘West’ of his Third Symphony op.36 (1976), Górecki began to receive the critical acclaim that was long overdue.

Why had his music been so long ignored?  It was a matter partly of poor distribution abroad of Polish LP recordings, partly because he was overshadowed by Lutosławski and Penderecki in the 1960s and 1970s, and not least it was because Górecki shunned the limelight and hardly ever travelled far from his home district around Katowice in southern Poland.  He is a man very much rooted in his native environment and he has a deep and passionate commitment to the folk culture of Poland and in particular to that of the Tatra mountain region south-east of Katowice.  He is a man of trenchant views, for whom the church and Polish music have been of fundamental significance.  His unwavering awe for these elemental forces is now recognised beyond Polish boundaries, as may be heard in the three compositions recorded here.

Old Polish Music

Old Polish Music op.24 (1969) is one of Górecki’s most austere works.  Contrasts of instrumental colour, texture and dynamics are explored primarily in two intercut ideas, the first for trumpets and trombones, the second for strings.  Each in its different way evolves and expands until the coda provides a balm to these stark juxtapositions.  The workĺs title refers not only to the trumpet fanfare in the coda (an early two-part 14th-century Polish organum Benedicamus Domino) but also to the principal ideas that preceded it.  In fact, the opening music for trumpets and trombones is also derived from the organum, albeit loosely, while each ‘voice’ in the alternating string textures is a version (organised along serial lines as in Górecki’s music of the late 1950s, such as the First Symphony ‘1959’ op.14) of a second piece of old Polish music.  This time it is the tenor part of a lullaby, Already it is Dusk, by one of Poland’s most expressive Renaissance composers, Wacław z Szamotuł (Górecki returned to the same tenor part in 1988 in his First String Quartet op. 62).

Totus Tuus

By the time of Totus Tuus op.60 (1987), Górecki had composed a large number of works with Polish melodies and/or texts, such as the Second Symphony ‘Copernican’ op.31 (1972) and the Third Symphony.  But he had also refined his language beyond using existing sources, as in his unaccompanied choral pieces Euntes ibant et flebant op.32 (1972) and Miserere op.44 (1981).  Totus Tuus, written for Pope John Paul II’s third visit to his homeland, is a particularly fine example of Górecki’s recent music, with its unabashed simplicity and undisguised roots in Polish Catholic chant.  Unadorned triads and slow repeated phrases are the rock on which Górecki has built this telling affirmation of his faith.

Beatus Vir

Beatus Vir op.38 (1979) is also dedicated to the John Paul II.  Górecki made a rare appearance on the podium when he conducted the premiere in Kraków in June 1979, the occasion of the Pope’s first visit to Poland after his election the previous year.  In its restraint, Beatus Vir looks as far back as the orchestral Refrain op.21 (1965), but its more immediate ancestors are the Second and Third Symphonies.  Its atmosphere moves from anguished supplication to an ethereal release at the close.  The remorseless choral reiteration of ‘Domine’ at the beginning is taken up in more subdued fashion by the solo baritone.  The baritone’s ‘Exaudi orationem meam’ strains towards the light, arms outstretched, until the tonality moves, in one of several powerful shifts in the piece, from C minor to E flat major on the word ‘justitia’.  It is a simple gesture, magnificent in its impact.

Together, the soloist and chorus climb inexorably to the main climax (‘Deus meus es tu.  Spiritus tuus …’), before the baritone sinks back to the C minor music heard earlier.  A short resurgence on the words ‘Terra dedit frustum suum’ leads to the enlightening setting of ‘Gustate et videte’.  Górecki, as in so many of his works at such a point, releases the tension by moving into a brighter tonality.  In this case, the contemplative mood is caught by the simple harmonies drawn straight from unaccompanied church chanting, just as Totus Tuus comes from the same tradition.  The ensuing coda colours the C major tonality with an ostinato figure including an F sharp, although the figure’s outline relates back, as does everything in Beatus Vir, to the inflections of the chant.

© 1993 Adrian Thomas


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