• Górecki: Symphony no.3 (Warner Classics, 2003)


Górecki: Symphony no.3
Warner Classics 437 964-2 (Erato LP, 1985; Belart, 2003)
Stefania Woytowicz, Symphonieorchester des Südwestfunks, Baden-Baden, cond. Ernest Bour

• Symphony no.3




1.  LENTO, sostenuto tranquillo ma cantabile
2.  LENTO e LARGO, tranquillissimo-cantabilissimo-dolcissimo-LEGATISSIMO
3.  LENTO, cantabile-semplice

Henryk Mikolaj Górecki is one of those remarkable originals who have surfaced from time to time in the history of Polish music.  Unlike Witold Lutosławski (1913-94) and Krzysztof Penderecki (b.1933), who had been hailed outside Poland since the early 1960s, Górecki did not receive much attention abroad until some thirty years later.  Since 1992, his international fame has rested on his Third Symphony (1976), which in a range of recordings has sold well over a million copies world-wide.  Its success has been an unprecedented musical phenomenon.  And yet Górecki has been an original from the beginning of his career in the late 1950s: since his First Symphony ‘1959’ and the explosive Scontri (1960) for orchestra, he has developed a solitary path towards a leaner style, reaching in Old Polish Music (1969) and the Second Symphony (1972) for an intense simplicity and directness of expression that have few parallels.  This economy and return to modal and scalic idioms may occasionally remind us of Schubert, Bruckner or Sibelius, but the true roots are to be found elsewhere in his profound and distinctly Polish religious beliefs and in his passionate love for and identification with the folk heritage of Poland.

The Third Symphony fills a crucial place within Górecki’s oeuvre as the culmination, both expressive and technical, of his musical thinking of over a decade.  Whereas his two earlier symphonies are remarkable for their high energy, the Third inhabits a quite different world, one that is reflective, dynamically subdued and orchestrally restrained.  Its concept is unusual and daring: three slow movements (totalling some 55 minutes), in which the emotional focus is centred on the plaintive texts and lyrical melodies sung by a solo soprano.

The first movement opens with a chant-like melody whose long-breathed phrases and inflections Górecki has fashioned from two Polish church songs.  With this modal melody, heard first in the double basses, Górecki creates a blossoming canonic arch-structure in which the motifs echo from one voice to another with extraordinary resonance.  When the soprano eventually enters, her simple line is given a magical halo by the strings.  The text is a stanza from a Polish manuscript known as the ‘Holy Cross Lament’ (c.1470), where the Virgin Mary asks her dying Son to share his wounds with her.

The melodic material of the short second movement is Górecki’s own, but the poignant text comes from the Tatra mountain resort of Zakopane, in the Podhale region of southern Poland.  After the Second World War, the Gestapo prison called ‘The Palace’ in Zakopane was found to contain cells whose walls had been inscribed with graffiti by Polish prisoners.  One of these inscriptions read: ‘Mother, do not cry.  Queen of Heaven, Virgin most pure, support me always.  Hail Mary’.  It had been scratched on a wall by ‘Helena Wanda Blazusiakówna, aged 18, detained since 25 September 1944’.  Górecki had a clear vision of how it would sound:

I wanted the second movement to be of a highland character, not in the sense of pure folklore, but the climate of Podhale.  …  I wanted the girl’s monologue as if hummed … on the one hand almost unreal, on the other towering over the orchestra.  …  It cannot be a poster, drama or tragedy, but it should be a reference to the contemplation of the first movement.

The affecting directness of the second movement is carried over into the third, in which a Polish mother weeps for her missing soldier son.  As in the other movements, the words were the prime inspiration for Górecki:

For me, it is a wonderfully poetic text.  I do not know if a ‘professional’ poet would create such a powerful entity out of such terse, simple words.  It is not sorrow, despair or resignation, or the wringing of hands: it is just the great grief and lamenting of a mother who has lost her son.

Although the text is either from the First World War or from one of the three Silesian uprisings that followed it, the principal melody is apparently of 19th-century origin.   Górecki also makes reference here to other early 19th-century pieces: the haunting chordal oscillation that opens the movement is a direct quotation from the start of Chopin’s Mazurka op.17 no.4 (composed at a time of revolution and insurrection, exactly 100 years before Górecki was born).  And when the harp and piano touch off a sustained violin E natural a few bars later, Górecki is making the gentlest of allusions to the crunching climax of the first movement of Beethoven’s own Third Symphony (1803), itself a response to war and its consequences.

The ‘Symphony of Sorrowful Songs’ has a quality of devotion that draws its inner strengths from Poland’s religious history, its folk culture and its centuries-old struggle against persecution.  Nowhere has Górecki’s search for his roots been given more eloquent testimony.  Yet such is his uncommon mastery of the most straightforward of musical means that the symphony’s clarity and transparency – which was such a shock to its early audiences in the late 1970s – now reaches far beyond the confines of its Polish background as one of the most distinctive and moving creations of recent times.

© 2003 Adrian Thomas


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