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Henryk Mikołaj Górecki: Symphony no. 3
11 Feb 2006

GÓRECKI: Symphony no. 3

Henryk Górecki’s Symphony no. 3 (1976), his “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs,” as it is called, is one of the most popular recordings of late twentieth-century music.

Henryk Mikołaj Górecki: Symphony no. 3

Ingrid Perruche (soprano), Sinfonia Varsovia, Alain Altinoglu (cond.)

Näive CDV 5019 [CD]


The various extant releases of this work have made the piece available to a broad audience which might not otherwise encounter this Symphony. Given its availability, the question may be raised about the need for yet another recording of this well-known work.

Paired with an earlier work by Górecki, his Canticum graduum, op. 27 (1969), the Third Symphony is available in a moving performance conducted by Alain Altinoglu, who brings his own insights to the music. In fact, the pairing with the earlier work demonstrates vividly Górecki’s roots as a modernist, with the single-movement Canticum graduum, a piece that reflects some aspects of Krzyztof Penderecki’s music. In the notes that accompany the recording, Adrian Thomas, author of Polish Music since Szymanowski (Cambridge University Press, 2005) mentions the comparisons that can be made between the music of Górecki and Penderecki, and this is evident in the sound masses that occur at the opening of the Canticum graduum. More than emulation, Górecki gave his work its own style, which shows a different sense of musical narrative than Penderecki would pursue in works like Fluoresces and music he composed at the time. At the same time Górecki’s meditative Canticum graduum anticipates some aspects of the so-called minimalist composers would pursue in the following decades. It is a fine work that is well played by the Sinfonia Varsovia, a performance that Altinoglu made effective through his sensitivity to the details of the score and the intensity the piece requires for a successful performance.

It is such intensity that characterizes Górecki’s later Symphony no. 3, a three-movement work for soprano and orchestra. The Symphony is comprised entirely of slow movements, each with a text that deals in some way with a feminine response to loss and suffering. In the first movement, Górecki set a fifteenth-century lament of the Virgin Mary; the second is a prayer to the Blessed Virgin that a young woman wrote on the wall of a Gestapo prison in 1944; the third, a folksong connected with political strife in Silesia around 1920 that deals specifically with a mother mourning for her son. Parallels exist between the outer movements, with what began with the divine in the image of the Pieta in the opening is revisited at the end in very human terms at the conclusion with the evocation of popular lyrics. The central movement is poignant for various reasons, especially the context in which the text was transmitted. With the prayer to the Virgin contextualized in a Gestapo prison, Górcecki created connotations that enhance the perceived meaning of the work. At the same time, the reinforcement of the text in the outer movements also transmutes the composer’s message to the human condition. It is, perhaps, this aspect of the work that contributes to its attraction for modern audiences.

Likewise, Górecki reflects in some ways the music of Gustav Mahler, who made orchestral slow movement into one of the more dynamic aspects of his own music. At the same time, a wholly vocal symphony has a precedent in Mahler’s symphonic song cycle, Das Lied von der Erde. In that work, Mahler took oriental elements from Hans Bethge’s interpretations of Chinese poetry in the collection Die chinesische Flöte and fashioned from them a work that is ultimately a meditation on the transitory nature of human existence.

In performing Górecki’s powerful work, Altinoglu creates such a seamless ensemble that the work sounds like chamber music. Unlike chamber music that sometimes pushes the boundaries of the genre in its execution, this orchestral work plays off the subtle intricacies scoring and articulation that contribute to its meditative nature. The intensity of sound makes the first movement, a piece that is about twenty-five minutes long, resembles a slow movement by Bruckner in its meditative nature. With the second movement, Górecki used the same diatonic harmonic idiom as found in the outer movements. This straightforward setting of the simple prayer from the Zakopone prison is appropriately austere. The music supports the vocal line, but never overshadows it, and in this recording the Polish soprano Ingrid Perruche offers an effective interpretation of the work. It is difficult to draw comparison with other performances, notably the famous one with Dawn Upshaw, but this recording is notable for its fine balance between the singer and the orchestra. In some ways Perruche matches the intensity of the string textures with her own resonant sounds. She uses vibrato to support some of the higher passages, but that coloring is never excessive. For passages where the voice must move with the harmonic rhythm, a sensitive, intimate ensemble is evident, and accompaniment fades into the background at the repetition of the please to the Blessed Virgin at the end of the piece, with the phrase Zdrowaś Mario, laskiś pelna (“Hail Mary, full of grace,” the first line of the traditional Latin Ave Maria).

The last movement of the Symphony is akin the first in length, and the ostinato figures become a plaintive element in this performance, as if the orchestra were a chorus supporting the solo voice. Altinoglu keeps the ensemble from dulling the repeated figures by keeping the various attacks solid and clear. At the same time, the orchestra timbre remains resonant throughout the piece and always supports the voice when she enters. It is a fine performance that adds to the number of solid recordings of the piece that are already available. Those who know this work may want to hear this performance, which has the added benefit of the Canticum graduum; and those who may not be familiar with Górecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs will find an effective performance of the piece in this recording.

James L. Zychowicz
Madison, Wisconsin

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