• Reviews in translation (Górecki-Gibbons)

Penderecki_Gorecki_LutoslawskiFacebook friends will know that I posted last week about an unusual event at Warsaw’s Grand Theatre that was taking place on Saturday 29 November.  Here are my translations of two reviews that have since reached me (apologies for any linguistic infelicities).  I don’t usually occupy myself with reviews, as others are better placed to do them.  But the nature of the event is such that I think these opinions from Sunday 30 November may be of interest. They were written for well-regarded newspaper outlets, polityka.pl and wyborcza.pl.

I’m not going to develop the arguments here, but I may well return, in another post, to the trend of not leaving composers’ works alone.  Chopin is one thing, and his music has been used a creative resource for many years.  But in recent years in Poland it has been the music of lately deceased or living composers that has come in for treatment that ranges from ‘dressing-up’ to something more materially radical.  But that is for another day.

The first of the reviews comes from Dorota Szwarcman’s online blog for Polityka.

Three People, Two People and Spotlights (Trzech, dwóch i reflektory)

Dorota Szwarcman

The purpose of the concert at the Grand Theatre was to record it for DVD, but the audience had to endure aggressive noise emanating from antediluvian spotlights.  It was impossible to convince the organisers to do something about it.  In fact, ‘noise’ is an understatement.  It was a din.  It impeded hearing the performances, was superimposed on them and distorted them, especially in the quiet moments. I understand that it will be filtered out in the recording, but why then invite an audience?  They could have recorded it in rehearsal.  And so we felt simply as if we’d been given a kicking.

OK, but we must consider the pieces.  The ‘Three People’ are Penderecki, Lutosławski and Górecki.  As the only surviving member of this trio, it fell to Penderecki to conduct the works of all of them.  There was a continuation of the Penderecki-Greenwood project (48 Responses to Polymorphia was performed again), extended by the new Réponse Lutosławski by Bryce Dessner; plus works by the members of Radiohead and The National (the ‘Two People’), conducted by Bassem Akiki.  And NOSPR [National Symphony Orchestra of Polish Radio] played.

What can one say about these pieces?  My reflection is that people who play music every day which is completely different, sharper, become awfully polite when they suddenly enter the classical world.  Isolated timid clusters are lost in a sea of wistful tonal fragments, this tonality being slightly disturbed, so that everything is not just repeated literally, but is still all very discreet. While the relationship between Greenwood’s piece and Penderecki’s is very obvious – its successive fragments originate in Polymorphia‘s famous final C-major chord – it is hard to see what links Dessner’s composition with Lutosławski’s Funeral Music, perhaps two notes, not more.  It is easier to hear connections with Philip Glass, who has nothing in common with Lutosławski.  The responses therefore do not constitute in either case a counterbalance to the ‘questions’, i.e. the works by Penderecki and Lutosławski.

Another thing: the visuals were terribly distracting, supposedly attractive and interesting (made by the same people who have been in charge of the staging of concerts at Wrocław’s Centenary Hall), but here too expressive and riveting.  It was hard to take in the music at the same time.  There may be some for whom it was easier…

The second half was another story.  Starting with the visuals themselves, which were the work of John Milton, who is in charge of the packaging and staging for Portishead concerts, and ending with the introduction of Beth Gibbons in Symphony of Sorrowful Songs.  In an “excuse me for living” position (I thought that, in her situation, she was being unusually shy, but it turns out that she is always like this), she sat on a chair and sang into a microphone.  It has to be said that she had been really well coached by an expert – after all, she does not read music, knows no Polish and, moreover, has never sung in any language other than English, and furthermore has never sung with an orchestra [AT: although she and Portishead have performed with a backing orchestra]. Somehow she made it happen, even if in some places she had to sing down an octave; she sang in her own way, just as she does with Portishead, the voice slightly murmuring, slightly whining, but clear for all that…  The greatest advantage of this singing was its sincerity and directness – she knew what she was singing about and tried to express it; one may say that her singing was ‘sorrowful’ in reference to the work’s title, though this term is ambiguous.  The visuals underlined the claustrophobic-despressive mood, showing a wall of lichens, murky corridors without end, guttering candles.  All in all, I don’t know the reason for this experiment, because Górecki’s Third Symphony has just no need of popularisation, but apparently foreign concert halls are already interested in this concert.  Well, let’s see.

The second review, also dated 30 November 2014, is by Anna S. Dębowska for Wyborcza.

Anglo-Saxons from the World of Pop in a Concert with Music from the Polish Classics (Anglosasi ze świata popu na jednym koncercie z muzyką polskich klasyków)

Anna S. Dębowska

Radiohead, The National and Portishead connected with Polish music in a National Audiovisual Institute project.  The result was at least debatable, but what kind of art is without controversy?  A review of Saturday’s concert in the Grand Theatre – National Opera in Warsaw.

Commissioned by the National Audiovisual Institute, Jonny Greenwood and Bryce Dessner composed short pieces for string orchestra inspired by Krzysztof Penderecki’s Polymorphia from 1961 (Greenwood) and by Witold Lutosławski’s Funeral Music from 1958 (Dessner).  Beth Gibbons sang the soprano part in Henryk Mikołaj Górecki’s Third Symphony ‘Symphony of Sorrowful Songs’ (1976).  The performances of the Polish music were conducted by Krzysztof Penderecki and the new pieces by Bassem Akiki, the young Lebanese-Polish conductor who made his debut at Wrocław Opera a few years ago.  The National Symphony Orchestra of Polish Radio played.

That about sums it up.  The idea came from Michał Merczyński, head of the National Audiovisual Institute, the artistic selections made by Filip Berkowiczm director of the Kraków festival Sacrum Profanum. “I’m very interested in bringing together the worlds of serious music and ambitious entertainment”, he told Wyborcza. “Such collaborations provide an extraordinary boost to the participants, for their work reaches a whole new audience.  I am glad that Michał Merczyński has once more invited me to collaborate and again allowed me to stir it.”

Water and Fire One Year Later

Indeed, Berkowicz has stirred things up.  He’s already done it many times.  It is sufficient to recall projects like ‘Penderecki Reloaded’ – initiated jointly with Merczyński, processing the classics through performances by Greenwood and Aphex Twin – or ‘Polish Icons’ – with Skalpel remixing Penderecki, Górecki and Lutosławski at Sacrum Profanum [AT: 2014].  But this is nothing compared with Beth Gibbons, the vocalist with the trip-hop group Portishead, cast in the oratorio-cantata soprano role in Górecki’s Third Symphony.

Saturday’s concert was due to happen a year ago during the jubilees of the three great Polish composers.  I do not think that the change of date influenced its reception.  For some it was from start to finish a proposition that was hard to take, while others saw in it an interesting attempt to link different worlds, for which the blurring of boundaries is a trump card.  For others it is an alarming attempt to tamper with copyrighted musical texts.

That is why Gibbons fans reacted enthusiastically, in contrast to classical music connoisseurs, who took the thing with chilly scepticism (the family of Henryk Mikołaj Górecki disassociated themselves from the project). This attempt to reconcile fire with water convinced me more, however, than the compositional proposals of Greenwood and Dessner, who entered too willingly into the role of imitators.

Simple and Authentic Beth Gibbons

Accepting Gibbons in the Górecki demanded openness and a reorientation to a different kind of vocal expression.  It is difficult to measure the star of Portishead as a classical singer and compare her to Stefania Woytowicz, Dawn Upshaw or Zofia Kilanowicz, great performers of the Third Symphony.  Not that vocal strength, that range or that technique.  That is not what it is about.  Despite obvious vocal shortcomings, she found herself surprisingly at home in the atmosphere of Górecki’s music, inspired by the lament of a mother in pain at the death of her son.  The trump card was the musicality, simplicity and authenticity of a non-professional.  She was herself – she sang sitting at the microphone, sheltering behind her hair like an introvert. She must have put in a great deal of work on her Polish, because it sounded impeccable at times.  The high notes were evidently problematic for her, but the amplification helped in producing them.

It was an interesting experiment, but one hopes even so that Gibbons does not spawn imitators (Bjork once turned down an invitation to sing the Third Symphony).  Górecki is only superficially simple and wistful, not suitable for the stage.  Rather he did not approve the use of his music for other purposes, as when he did not permit the Polish distribution of the film in which the director Tony Palmer illustrated the Third Symphony with images of war.

Rockers Write in a Twentieth-Century Fashion

In the case of Greenwood’s and Dessner’s meeting with the classics there was nothing new.  The commissioning of orchestral works from them was the result of compositional try-outs by both musicians. Dessner has had a classical training and has written for the Kronos Quartet.  It is great that someone suggested Lutosławski to him, although Philip Glass was a greater influence in his piece (Réponse Lutosławski) than the great Pole, except maybe for the cluster from Funeral Music.  Even so, the Dessner seems a more interesting, more independent composer that Greenwood with his 48 Responses to Polymorphia, in which he drew liberally from the arsenal of avant-garde and sonoristic devices from the second half of the twentieth century.

Time will tell whether Dessner’s piece will be an encouragement to fans of The National to reach for Lutosławski.  If that happens, there awaits them a meeting with unusually complicated musical material of outstanding expressive qualities.  Saturday’s performance of Funeral Music once again showed that it is a masterpiece.  Likewise, Polymorphia under the baton of its creator, Krzysztof Penderecki, has lost nothing of its freshness and acuity.

It was moving that these pillars of Polish music (Polymorphia, Funeral Music, Symphony of Sorrowful Songs) sounded out under the baton of Krzysztof Penderecki, the only performer who had been a witness and co-originator of the era in which these works were created.  He naturally became the keystone of all of the concert’s themes.  Recruiting him for this project was Michał Merczyński’s and Filip Berkowicz’s unquestionable success.

The concert will be released on DVD by NiNA.


• Ławka Góreckiego (Górecki’s Bench)

Now with added photos!  Two weeks ago, Anna Górecka and her husband took me to see the Górecki Bench outside his old primary school in Rydułtowy (now the Public Library).  The bench invites one to sit, so I duly did.  It was oddly touching, given that it is just a sculpture.  But I’d much rather have been sitting next to the man himself. Happy 81st, Henryk!

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I wrote about Henryk’s bench when it was unveiled three years ago.  Górecki’s figure is slightly less than life-size.

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The likeness is variable but, as Anna Górecka pointed out, it is best when viewed from his left side.

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It is a pity that the sculptor, like so many visual artists, thought that it would suffice just to throw a few random notes onto the pages of the score that Henryk is reading.  What an opportunity missed.  A few fragments of Elementi (1962) would have been just the thing.

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Still, the sculpture has become quite a draw and appreciated by the local community.  When it was removed a year ago for retouching, the police were inundated with calls from the public saying that it had been stolen.

Early in the day we had driven up and down a street named in Górecki’s honour.  It is more like a boulevard and at two kilometres surely the longest thoroughfare named after a Polish composer.  It is part of Rybnik’s ring road, completed in 2011, and runs south from Rondo Elektrowni to Rondo Solidarności.  He’d have appreciated that.

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• Nugs and Bling: Three Silesian Graves

For the first time since Górecki’s funeral four years ago, last week I paid a visit to the cemetery near Katowice’s Cathedral of Christ the King.  I had seen (and posted) a photo of the grave, but its gravestone – or, rather its rough nug of a monument (‘nug’ is the possible etymological root of ‘nugget’, and deserves to be reinstated for its sound alone!) – makes it stand proud of the conventional gravestones around it.  From every angle it looks quietly and solidly imposing.  Although I was there three weeks after All Saints’ and All Souls’, the cemetery was still a blaze of colour.

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A little further down the main avenue is the grave of Górecki’s fellow Silesian and composer, Wojciech Kilar (who died on 29 December last year) and his wife Barbara.  Its shiny black arch and gold lettering are striking, to say the least, as is the mottled marble cross that lies on the grave and points through the opening.  Maybe arch is the wrong image: it seems to be more like the dark night pierced by light.  It certainly stands taller than any other memorial.

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On into an adjoining cemetery.  To the right, in the second row, is the grave of the Polish actor, Zbigniew Cybulski.  He died in 1967, running for a departing train in Wrocław.  He slipped on its steps and fell under the wheels.  He was only 39, but he had made a huge impact on Polish cinema, most famously for his role in Andrzej Wajda’s film Ashes and Diamonds (1958).  His memorial has a ruggedness that parallels Górecki’s.  Its stone still had not been cleared of the dozens of candles placed there at the start of the month.

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• Gloria Artis, 12.04.14

It was a sideshow to the main event of the evening (the world premiere of Henryk Mikołaj Górecki’s Fourth Symphony), but the ceremony that took place in the Thomas Beecham Room at London’s Royal Festival Hall on 12 April 2014 was very special to me.  I had learned late last year that the Polish Government, through the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage, had awarded me the Gloria Artis Gold Medal, for services to Polish music.  This was a great honour, not least because the vast majority of recipients of the bronze, silver and gold medals since the award’s creation in 2006 have been Polish creative artists, and consequently relatively few are from other countries. I gathered that Pierre Boulez and Simon Rattle and the historian Norman Davies were previous recipients of the Gold Medal.  Exalted company!

There was no immediate prospect of an award ceremony as I was off to France at the start of 2014 on a four-month walk.  I was scheduled, however, to return to London for a few days to give the pre-concert talk for the Górecki premiere and to attend rehearsals.  This turned out to suit the Polish side too.

The ceremony was carried out at a reception, between the talk and the concert, by the Polish Ambassador to the UK, Witold Sobków, who was very generous in his citation.  I gave a brief response to express my profound gratitude for the award, brief because time was running out (the clock on the tower of the Houses of Parliament was touching 19.20!).  There was still time to grab a photo opportunity with Górecki’s daughter Anna, with her husband Wojciech and their two older children, Jaś and Emi, and Janis Susskind, Górecki’s publisher at Boosey & Hawkes, and also a shot with my sister Gaynor who had come up to London especially.  Then it was into the concert for the premiere, and early the next morning I was back on the train heading for Paris and Limoges to complete my walk.

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You can read a couple of related media reports here:

Polish Radio: http://www.thenews.pl/1/6/Artykul/168180,Top-British-music-critic-Adrian-Thomas-gets-Polish-state-honour
Cardiff University: http://www.cardiff.ac.uk/music/newsandevents/news/schoolnews/14goldmedal.html

• Górecki: Kyrie**

Hot on the heels of the YouTube upload of the premiere of Górecki’s Symphony no.4 (Górecki: Symphony 4**) comes another upload, this time of his Kyrie (2005), which was premiered in Warsaw, in the presence of his widow Jadwiga, on Easter Monday, 21 April 2014.  Górecki dedicated the Kyrie to Pope John Paul II, who died in 2005. This was intended to be part of a large-scale Mass that remained unrealised at Górecki’s death five years later.  Its sombre mood, underpinned by the low-register tolling, is momentarily relieved by the luminous tone of the a cappella ‘Christe elision’, but its general atmosphere is brooding.  The ending is especially haunting, where the expected return of ‘Kyrie eleison’ is replaced by Polish text.  The Kyrie also has echoes of a much earlier, and now almost forgotten work, the powerful Ad Matrem (1970).  On this evidence, the full Mass, had it been completed, would have been monumental.  You can find this recording on NINATEKA too.



My preparations for and execution of my peregrinations in France prevented me from highlighting a major online resource that was launched in Poland at the end of 2013.  I have been provoked into posting details now by the world premiere on 21 April of Henryk Mikołaj Górecki’s Kyrie.  Although a recording has already been posted on YouTube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NNuWAb_5OPk), there is also an audio file on NINATEKA: Three Composers.  It can, however, take some time for the NINATEKA files to load on the in-built player, although I can’t tell if this is down to the strength or weakness of the wifi signal.

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NINATEKA is hosted by Poland’s Narodowy Instytut Audiowizualny (National Audiovisual Institute) and covers a wide range of creative arts.  It is a Polish-language site, with the notable exception of Trzej Kompozytorzy (Three Composers).  Witold Lutosławski, Krzysztof Penderecki and Górecki all had significant anniversaries in 2013, and this initiative brings together archive recordings of their music, mostly from Polish Radio.  Here you will find not only the major concert works but also smaller, less familiar pieces.  There are timelines, biographies and glossaries (‘alphabet’).  Tucked away is the roster of the editorial team, led by Dr Iwona Lindstedt.

The navigating tools are fairly straightforward once you have worked them out.  Under ‘music’, you can pick an individual year or span of years, you can see a composer’s complete repertoire (‘all forms/genres’) or narrow it down under this same heading or in groups (scroll down ‘all categories’).  You can be guided by ‘recommended’ or ‘popular’ or read the playlists suggested by musicians and family members.  Or you can use ‘advanced search’ to filter by duration, instrumentation etc..  But if you want to look chronologically, you may initially be stumped.  For this, you have to look higher up the page and click on ‘creative periods’.

Happy exploration.  NINATEKA: Three Composers really is a treasure trove.

• Górecki: Symphony 4**

Last month I briefly interrupted my walk in France to return to London for the long-awaited premiere of Górecki’s Fourth Symphony (2006).  I’d seen the score last year and wrote the concert programme notes before I left for France in January.  I was able to sit in on the first two days of rehearsals at Henry Wood Hall, with the London PO under Andrey Boreyko.  It seemed to me that Górecki’s son Mikołaj had done a superb job realising his father’s express and unspoken wishes in completing the orchestration of the work.  I had a couple of very interesting conversations with the conductor, during which I pointed out some of the composer references that were in the score but which became fully apparent only during rehearsal.  Yet it was impossible to form a rounded view of the work until the night of the premiere.

Philharmonic Orchaestra - videoThe audience response was fascinating.  There was no tittering (as there had been at rehearsal) at the slightly strange appearance of the glockenspiel after the hammering orchestral introduction (the scoring was Górecki’s). There was total concentration throughout the symphony’s 40 minutes.  And the reception at the end was enthusiastic: whoops, whistles and a standing ovation.  I was particularly thrilled for Górecki’s daughter Anna, who had brought her family and friends with her from Katowice for the occasion (Górecki’s widow, Jadwiga, and his son Mikołaj, who deserved an ovation of his own, were unfortunately not able to come).  I’ve not yet had a chance to read the critics’ responses, but I gather that they too have been very positive.  Here’s a link to the audio:


I must admit that I hadn’t been sure how it would hang together.  Certainly, the ‘Tansman’ theme – extrapolated from the letters of his full name – acts as a connecting thread, but Górecki’s habit of cross-cutting between movements often blurs the boundaries.  I needn’t have worried, and why should I?  The strongly etched expressive contrasts carry their own weight and structures, none more so than in the ‘Trio’ section of the third movement where the attention is closely focussed on a small chamber ensemble.  This substantial, yet minimised passage is the heart of the symphony and was especially telling on the night.

Where I still remain puzzled relates to the five bars towards the end of the Finale when Górecki inserts a darkly resonant reference to Siegfried’s Theme from Wagner’s Ring.  As I explain in the footnote afterthoughts to my programme notes (see • (2014) Tansman, Stravinsky, Górecki), this theme does contain references to other ideas in the symphony, but they are subliminal rather than overt.  The Wagner reference is given such prominence, albeit briefly, that it evidently had great significance for Górecki.  Yet its function within the symphony is enigmatic, to this listener at least.

What remains with me from that night is the sheer Góreckian character of the piece.  There are many familiar features as well as the unexpected ones.  The forthrightness, the almost bloody-minded obstinacy, the ability to switch expressive mode dramatically, the tenderness and sense of intimacy.  And that’s not to mention the sense of humour, tongue-in-cheek, daring the listener not to be po-faced.

It was terrific that The Guardian took up the suggestion to stream the video of the premiere over the following week. But where, one might ask, was BBC Radio 3 or Classic FM?

As I resumed my walk in France, the ‘Tansman’ theme kept revolving in my head, becoming my equivalent of a sea shanty, bolstering my walking rhythm as I marched onwards.  A strange aftermath, I thought, but one which encapsulated the persistent strength of Górecki’s music.

© 2014 Adrian Thomas

• Górecki memento/2: photo 1997

Here’s a photo taken in October 1997 (during the ‘Górecki Autumn’ festival in Los Angeles) in the house of Stefan and Wanda Wilk, the founders of the Polish Music Center at USC.  I think he was trying to teach me a góral version of Chopsticks.  A happy memory to soften the realisation that today is the third anniversary of his death.

gorthomasI also wrote a post on this day in 2011: Song of Joy and Rhythm.

• Górecki: Refren, **27 October 1965

Before I first went to Poland, my fellow student Jim Samson brought back from Warsaw an LP of music by Henryk Mikołaj Górecki.  It blew our socks off.  Released a couple of years earlier, Polskie Nagrania ‘Muza’ XL 0391 (reissued over 25 years later on Olympia OCD 385 as ‘The Essential Górecki’) contained music the like of which neither of us had heard before.  There was the brief, Webernian Epitafium (1958), the explosive Scontri (Collisions, 1960), the incantatory Genesis II: Canti strumentali (1962) and the comparatively restrained Refren (Refrain, 1965). Thrilling though the first three pieces were, it was the last work that made the most profound impression.  Here is that recording of 1967, by the the Great Symphony Orchestra of Polish Radio (WOSPR) conducted by Jan Krenz.

Screen Shot 2013-10-26 at 11.58.47Over the summer of 2013, information emerged about the commissioning and premiere of Refren (which took place in Geneva on this date 48 years ago, Wednesday 27 October 1965, with the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande conducted by Pierre Colombo – it had been commissioned for the Centenary of the International Telecommunications Union, which was and still is based in Geneva).  This little story unfolded after I was contacted in early June by the Head of the Library and Archives service of the ITU, Kristine Clara.  She had come across a photograph in the October 1965 issue of the ITU’s Communication Journal and could find no further trail of the ITU’s connection with Refren.  “Could I help?”.

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This must be one of the strangest photographs connected with a new score.  No sign of the composer, none of the conductor or orchestral musicians.  Instead, there are three now-forgotten figures from the worlds of politics and the unions looking at Górecki’s manuscript (although it looks more like one of the orchestral parts than the full score).  It is possible that Górecki had been invited, but I know that he was in Poland on the day that this photograph was taken and that he was ill at home on the day of the premiere six weeks later.  Kristine Clara also wondered where the score was – it was not in the ITU archives.  As far as I am aware, it went back to Poland, to the composer and to his publisher PWM, who brought it out in 1967.  As to the commission, my guess is that it was engineered by the Polish government and its Ministry of Culture.  It was a very important moment in Górecki’s life: his first foreign commission and premiere.

One piece of information that I could now furnish concerned the precise dates of Refren‘s composition.  The dates that Górecki had given were May-June 1965.  Having recently looked at his diaries, I was able to say that he started work on the piece on 26 April and finished it on 30 June.

As our email conversation progressed, Kristine Clara unearthed other information, this time about the premiere.  The Swiss Radio listings for 27 October indicate that Refren was broadcast live.

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She also came across the catalogue card for the Swiss Radio tape of the premiere, which indicated that not only was it broadcast live but, contrary to the BBC’s practice at the time, was also recorded, enabling it to be rebroadcast on New Year’s day 1966.

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I have not yet been able to determine if this tape still exists.  It would be fascinating to hear it, not least to verify the unexpected comment – with exclamation mark – written on the card: ‘Attention: rumeurs dans le public!’ (Warning: audience noise!).

Kristine Clara also unearthed several relevant items from the Journal de Genève – ‘de notre envoyé spécial’.  This turns out to be Franz Walter, a music critic and broadcaster best known today for having interviewed the pianist Dinu Lipatti less than three months before his death in 1950 (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NqftMxn1PrI).  Walter had been at the ‘Warsaw Autumn’ festival a few weeks before the premiere of Refren; I may come back at a later date to his two reviews of the festival in Journal de Genève (18 and 27 October).  More pertinent here is his review of the Suisse Romande concert on 27 October, which appeared in Journal de Genève the following day (it is the only review of the premiere of which I am aware).  I will pass over Walter’s enthusiastic response to the performance of Prokofiev’s First Violin Concerto by the young Claire Bernard.  His response to Refren is revealing.  His touchstone here was the performance he had heard in Warsaw on 23 September of Górecki’s Elementi for violin, viola and cello (1962), in a performance by Ensemble Instrumental Musiques Nouvelles de Bruxelles.

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Pierre Colombo, who had shaped the concerto’s accompaniment with great care – after a Mozart symphony which I could not hear [maybe Walter was returning to the hall having just introduced the concert on air] – then presented the world premiere of a work by the Pole Henryk Górecki.  The Warsaw Festival had just recently aired a string trio by this composer, a trio in which the players were induced to utter all the most incongruous and horrifying sounds that one can draw from a string instrument, yielding also to a “bruitist” mode that was very much in evidence at this recent festival.  The point of such a work could only be to get on the nerves of the listener.  The work which Pierre Colombo presented to us, with large orchestral forces, pursued in short the same goal, though by different means.  Long chordal aggregates, tirelessly repeated and punctuated by brief… how shall I put it… gusts of wind from the brass, frantic barking from these same brass, splashes from the strings, explosions from the timpani, such is the material which furnishes Refrains [sic].

The nervous effect was produced.  In the event, it found expression in laughter.  But our public is not yet used to this music.  Elsewhere people listen with great seriousness (and for my part with profound boredom).  F.W.

There are some inconsistent aspects of Walter’s account, especially in the short second paragraph, but it is clear that he found Górecki’s new piece insupportable and gives the clue to the ‘audience noise’ mentioned on the Swiss Radio catalogue card.  I wonder how widespread this laughter was.  One has to marvel, though, at Walter’s response.  He had heard much more rebarbative music in Warsaw a few weeks earlier, and Górecki’s Refren is not that far removed in aesthetic from Messiaen’s Les offrandes oubliées, composed 35 years earlier.  It marks, as we now know, the turning point from the overt dynamism of the preceding decade to the largely contemplative mode of his subsequent music.  But to contemporary ears (or at least Walter’s) it sounded as bad as the earlier pieces.

• Recollecting Górecki

While I was in Warsaw last week, a new book was launched that goes beyond traditional reminiscences of recently departed artists.  It is almost three years since Henryk Mikołaj Górecki died – he would, like Penderecki, have been 80 this year and no doubt there would have been wider celebrations of his music had he still been alive.  The 2013 ‘Warsaw Autumn’, in a fit of commemoration, put on three concerts devoted to Lutosławski (Piano Concerto with Krystian Zimerman, Third Symphony), Penderecki (St Luke Passion) and Górecki (the three string quartets).  This new volume on Górecki, however, is no mere commemoration.  The contributors to Górecki. Portret w Pamięci (Górecki. Portrait in Memory) – all 42 of them, many of whom knew him extremely well and over many years – bring Górecki’s vivid, complex and sometimes contradictory personality back to life.  Taken together, they don’t miss you and hit the wall, as the saying goes.  There is a tinge of regret at the absence of his closest contemporaries, the composers Zbigniew Bujarski, Wojciech Kilar and Penderecki, and of the dedicatee and conductor of the premiere of Scontri, Jan Krenz.  But the collection is nevertheless rich in telling detail.

The book’s concept and execution were down to my friend Beata Bolesławska-Lewandowska.  She asks intelligent and searching questions and elicits fascinating responses, accessible to a wide range of readers.  Unfortunately, it is only in Polish, so readers and contributors who do not know the language have little chance of enjoying the memories therein.  An English version surely beckons.

Homma 1993 2

The contributions are grouped according to the interviewees’ occupations or relationship with the composer, each section printed on different coloured paper, and each interview prefaced by a photograph of the interviewee, sometimes with Górecki.  Here’s a list of the contributors and a byline on each.

Najbliżsi (Nearest): Jadwiga Górecka (widow), Mikołaj Górecki (son, composer), Anna Górecka (daughter, pianist)
• Uczniowie (Students): Eugeniusz Knapik (composer, pianist, teacher), Rafał Augustyn (composer, critic, Polish philologist), Małgorzata Hussar (composer, teacher)
Okiem muzykologa (In the eyes of the musicologist): Leon Markiewicz (Katowice Music Academy), Mieczysław Tomaszewski (former director of PWM, Kraków Music Academy), Teresa Malecka (Kraków Music Academy), Krzysztof Droba (Kraków Music Academy), Adrian Thomas (quite why I’m here rather than in group six I’m not sure!), Grzegorz Michalski (author, broadcaster, President of the Witold Lutosławski Society)
Kompozytorzy i wykonawcy (Composers and performers): Włodzimierz Kotoński (composer, teacher), Zygmunt Krauze (composer, pianist), Elżbieta Chojnacka (harpsichordist), Antoni Wit (conductor), Zofia Kilanowicz (soprano), Marek Moś (conductor, former leader of the Silesian String Quartet), Father Kazimierz Szymonik (priest, conductor)
• Dania (Denmark): Louise Lerche-Lerchenborg (commissioner of Lerchenmusik), Rosalind Bevan (pianist), Teresa Waśkowska (critic)
• Wielka Brytania (Great Britain): David Atherton (conductor), Paul Crossley (pianist), Janis Susskind (publisher, Boosey & Hawkes)
Stany Zjednoczone (United States): David Zinman (conductor), David Harrington (leader, Kronos Quartet), John Sherba (second violin, Kronos Quartet), Carol Wincenc (flautist)
• Bielsko-Biała (town south of Katowice where Górecki hosted a short festival each October; it still flourishes): Władysław Szczotka (Director, Bielsko-Biała Cultural Centre), Ewa Stojek-Lupin (pianist, portrait painter), Jacek Krywult (politician, President of Bielsko-Biała)
Promotorzy, organizatorzy (Promoters, organisers): Andrzej Kosowski (Director of Institute for Music and Dance, former director of PWM), Joanna Wnuk-Nazarowa (MD of NOSPR – National Symphony Orchestra of Polish Radio, Katowice), Ewa B. Michalska (music manager), Andrzej Wendland (Artistic Director, Tansman Festival, Łódź)
Interpretacje (Interpretations): Andrzej Chłopecki (✝ musicologist, broadcaster, critic), Krzysztof Zanussi (film director), Szymon Bywalec (conductor), Malgorzata and Marcin Gmys (musicologists), Mirosław Jacek Błaszczyk (conductor), Violetta Rotter-Kozera (TV documentary director)

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