• 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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• Polish Radio Choir to be liquidated?

Chór Polskiego Radia (1948-2012?)

Last November, I joined the Polish Radio Choir in Durham for the start of its UK tour.  Yesterday, I learned that, unless Polish Radio relents, the choir is to be liquidated.  It’s a strong term, ‘liquidation’, reserved for businesses or the horrors of ethnic cleansing.  But it’s the one chosen by Polish Radio to describe its decision about the Kraków-based Radio Choir.  Coming on the eve of the 75th anniversary (today) of Polish Radio’s cultural channel PR2 (the equivalent of BBC R3 in the UK), this news could hardly have been more pointed.

There is still an outside chance that the choir will be saved, but it looks like a forlorn hope.  The Minister of Culture yesterday reiterated his offer of an annual subsidy of 800,000 zł.  It was there on the table before the Polish Radio Management Board took its executive decision last week, but it had no effect.  800,000 zł is a sizeable offer – the equivalent of c.£162,630 – and represents almost 50% of the total annual cost of the choir, £1.7m zł (= c.£345,589). In the larger scheme of things, it’s not a huge sum of money to pay each year for such a world-class ensemble (individual annual salaries must average around £10K). Whether Polish Radio reverses its decision at the meeting of its Supervisory Board on 15 March is anybody’s guess, but the omens do not look good.

Whatever public hand-wringing goes on, whatever platitudes are uttered about painful decisions and whatever regrets expressed (and how hollow such sentiments ring), the fact is simple.  Like any organisation that finds itself in financial straits, priorities are made and if an individual or group is not deemed central to future operations, then that’s it.  Polish Radio evidently thinks that this outstanding choir is no longer essential, even though it has been a key part of its cultural strategy since the choir was founded in 1948.  It has been one of its most distinguished – and economically effective – cultural ambassadors.  If Polish Radio had wanted to keep the choir, it could and would have, and some other sector of the organisation would have suffered instead.  I’m not in a position to know what elements in Polish Radio’s current programming policy are more central, more essential or more worth saving, but you can bet your bottom złoty that they ain’t going to add quality to its cultural programming.

One of the key elements in any public broadcasting strategy is to provide programming initiatives that are distinctive. In music, that requires ‘house’ orchestras and other ensembles, like specialist choirs.  With far fewer commercial pressures than independent orchestras and choirs, these performing bodies are in a position to put on concerts whose repertoire can often, indeed should be more adventurous and wide-ranging.  The BBC Singers, whose history dates back almost 90 years to the mid-1920s, are, at 24 singers, fewer in number than their Polish counterparts but fulfil a similar function, with challenging and less frequently performed repertoire at their core. Fortunately, the BBC Singers seem secure in the BBC’s cultural strategy, but if they were ever to come under threat the outcry would be enormous.

Polish Radio, however, has ridden roughshod over the national outcry at its decision.  All the major cultural institutions in Poland – including the Ministry of Culture and its generous offer of recurrent subsidy – plus numerous individuals, including senior composers such as Krzysztof Penderecki and Wojciech Kilar, have argued cogently against it, but to no avail.  If nothing changes a fortnight today, the choir will be disbanded this summer.

I have a personal reason to be dismayed by this, as I took part (giving pre-concert talks) in the choir’s UK tour last November.  They sang at Durham Cathedral, King’s Place in London, St George’s in Bristol and St George’s Hall in Liverpool.  They gave wonderfully attuned performances of a cappella pieces by their compatriot Henryk Mikołaj Górecki, who had died just a year earlier.  Audiences were mesmerised not just by the music but by the exceptional quality of the choir’s sound.  Enthusiastic applause and standing ovations were instinctive responses.

This is a lamentable turn of events, and an unwarranted farewell is on the cards.  One last, unexpected memory for me was from the choir’s first night, in Durham Cathedral.  They had hardly begun the concert, with Górecki’s peaceful Totus Tuus, when the building seemed to be assaulted by a barrage of explosions as if we were under siege.  Not a single singer blinked, no-one looked askance, no voice wavered.  They didn’t know it, but it was Bonfire Night.  I am sure that they will bear the next few months with similar dignity and sense of musical purpose if the worst comes to the worst.

If you want to write a letter of protest, you can do so by contacting the President of the Polish Radio Supervisory Board, Mr. Stanisław Jędrzejewski (who will chair the board meeting on 15 March), at <marta.rybak@polskieradio.pl>.

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