• Górecki: Symphony no.4 (Nonesuch, 2016)




Górecki: Symphony no.4
Nonesuch 549570 (2016)
London Philharmonic Orchestra, cond. Andrey Boreyko

• Symphony no.4 ‘Tansman Episodes’
(live recording of world premiere, 12 April 2014)



The success in the 1990s of Górecki’s Third Symphony, composed in 1976, was unprecedented in its reach and volume.  The music had a profound effect on audiences across the world that few had foreseen.  During the late 1970s and through the 1980s, when the Third Symphony remained largely out of sight, Górecki moved on, developing his music in different directions both stylistically and in the genres that he chose.  There were large-scale choral works (Beatus vir, Miserere), a piano trio and two string quartets, Marian hymns and folksongs.  And in the 1990s, while the Third Symphony was making waves, he composed two works that included references to circus music (Concerto-Cantata and Little Requiem).  There is, therefore, some distance between the Third and Fourth symphonies.

Undoubtedly the media circus and international invitations in the mid-1990s – enjoyable although the latter often were – disrupted Górecki’s routines and, in a way, caused him some anguish about his future path.  Hence the ten-year delay before releasing his Third String Quartet in 2005, and the fact that he held on to his Fourth Symphony, completed in 2006 in short score for piano, with indications of eventual orchestration.  Dates for its premieres came and went, and the composer died in 2010 before he was ready to share it.

The task of realising the manuscript for publication and performance fell to Górecki’s son Mikołaj, a composer in his own right.  Although much of the instrumentation was already written into the short score, elsewhere Mikołaj Górecki drew on his intimate knowledge of his father’s music and thought processes.  The use of three bass drums in the first movement, for example, comes from Górecki’s comments to his son when he played the Symphony to him on the piano in 2006.  There are also instrumental references to comparable moments in works from Beatus vir and the Harpsichord Concerto to Little Requiem and Concerto-Cantata.

The Symphony’s subtitle, ‘Tansman Episodes’, reveals something of its source of inspiration, although it is not quite what it appears.  The work was the result of several years of cajoling by Andrzej Wendland, who initiated a festival in honour of the naturalised French composer Alexandre Tansman (1897-1986) in the central Polish city of Łódź, where Tansman was born.  Wendland sowed the idea for a new work in Górecki’s mind and left it to him to come up with a piece as and when it suited the composer’s schedule and health.  Although Górecki had asked Wendland for a range of materials by and about Tansman, in the end he decided to write a work apparently uninfluenced by his compatriot, with one important exception.

In a number of previous works, Górecki had included the names of dedicatees in the fabric of the music (for example, Michael Vyner’s name in Good Night).  This he did by translating suitable letters into their musical equivalents.  In the Fourth Symphony, he derived the following musical cipher from Aleksander Tansman (Górecki used the Polish original of the forename): A-La (A)-E-S (E flat)-A-D-E-Re (D) … uT (C)-A-S (E flat)- Mi (E)-A.

There are four movements, played without a break and with internal subdivisions (usually indicated by changes in tempo or instrumentation) that sometimes run counter to the score’s indicated division.  This approach is developed in part from Górecki’s chamber music of the 1980s and 90s.  The scoring is for large orchestra (quadruple woodwind, three percussionists, organ) with obbligato piano.  The role of the piano is an overt echo of Little Requiem.

The first movement opens with the first five notes of the ‘Tansman’ theme, the remainder following in a series of fff repetitions. There is an unmistakably Mussorgskian flavour to this opening (as I recall, Górecki possessed a score of Boris Godounov), evoked partly by the pentatonic answer to the opening motif and partly by the repetitive nature of the material.  Its incantatory nature is reinforced by superimposed chords (based on A and E flat), this characteristic dissonance released rather than resolved by a skeletal exchange between piano and glockenspiel. The movement ends with six emphatic A minor chords, gritted by G sharps and B flats.

As an example of the through-composed nature of the Symphony, the second movement continues the basic A-minor tonality, with a chorale-like idea in the cellos and basses, ben sonore, that is interrupted several times by the gritty chords.  A second melodic theme, backed by a G major triad, is played by a pair of clarinets. This turns out to be the theme from the final movement of Szymanowski’s Stabat mater, one of Górecki’s favourite pieces.  Its punctuation is gentler (a whole tone on piano, glockenspiel and tubular bells).  A third theme follows (second violins and violas). The movement ends with a return of the opening ben sonore material, this time intercut by the whole-tone piano and bells, and a final recall of the clarinets, doubled by French horns.

The expressive atmosphere at this point has become introverted.  As in his chamber music, Górecki punctures the mood with something more upbeat, although not in this case really up-tempo (it is marked Deciso-Marcatissimo). The third movement shows Górecki in earthy mode and contains a passing allusion to Stravinsky. The core of the movement is unexpected and was part of Górecki’s original concept.  He abandons the orchestra and focuses on a small chamber ensemble with the piano at its heart.  It accompanies firstly a solo cello, to which subsequently is added a solo violin, with a piccolo joining in for the major part of the section.  This ‘trio’ is followed by the return, elaborated and extended, of what is in effect the orchestral ‘scherzo’. By this stage in the symphony, it will have become evident that much of the melodic material, the ‘Tansman’ theme aside, has a strong folkloric identity or is borrowed material.

The finale begins as a true Allegro, taking its cue from the opening notes of the ‘Tansman’ theme (oboes and clarinets).  There is a typically acerbic answer (violin dissonances) as well as repeated triadic punctuation. The repeated chords begin as a self-referential nod to Little Requiem, but then Górecki morphs it into a reference to the music of John Adams.  Although Górecki did not like the term ‘minimalist’ when applied to his music, he was interested in composers for whom at some stage it was appropriate.  He shared a publisher – Boosey & Hawkes – with Steve Reich and John Adams, and I think that at this particular moment he realised that there was a coincidental connection with Adams and as a tongue-in-cheek tribute he proceeded to make it explicit.

When the music moves decisively into triple metre it is marked giocoso even though it is more elusive than the opening of the movement.  After a recapitulation of the first section, a slower solo for the piano brings back the ‘Tansman’ theme in new chording, onto which the brass burst with a new phrase that in its stentorian presentation seems particularly significant. This singular moment, shortly before the end of the Finale, is both unexpected and unexplained.  It shares a pitch-class (E flat) with the Tansman theme as well as sharing a three-note ‘turn’ with the theme borrowed in the second movement from Szymanowski’s Stabat mater.  But Górecki keeps this four-bar idea separate and isolated from its surroundings.  It is a mystery why, at this culminating point in the symphony, Górecki should make a direct reference to the ‘Siegfried Theme’ from Wagner’s The Ring.  His son Mikołaj has said that in his last years his father became interested in Wagner, but the listener may well feel nonplussed by this particular citation.

After this interpolation, the piano and orchestra pick up the ‘Tansman’ thread for the last time. The final moments are dominated by the reiterated, gritty A minor chords, although they do not have the final word.

© 2015 Adrian Thomas


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