Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Henryk Mikołaj Górecki's "Symphony of Sorrowful Songs" Performed by Isabel Bayrakdaraian and Sinfonietta Cracovia, Directed by John Axelrod

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Blogger The Sanity Inspector said...

Forgive the self-promotion, but I'm proud of this amazon review I wrote of this symphony years ago, the Dawn Upshaw rendition. I even got an appreciative email in broken English, from someone in Poland.


I have to confess; I resisted this work for a long time, for reasons of anti-fashion. The idea that such an achingly spiritual work like this should become mood music for zinfandel-tippling yuppies was disgusting to me. Of course, to do just the opposite is also to follow fashion. I was only depriving myself, so when I finally sat down and paid serious attention to it, I was as deeply affected as most every other listener was.

Poor martyred Poland! Has any country in Europe been kicked around so terribly in the last 200 years as she has? It's a wonder more music like this hasn't been produced by Polish composers. I haven't read anyone who says so, but I suspect that this work was a piece of musical samizdat. It was composed in 1976, halfway between the Gdansk protests and repression of 1970 and the Solidarity movement of 1980. The piece makes an obvious connection between Christ and the victims of the Holocaust, but one can easily read allusions to Poland's plight under the Soviet jackboot as well. Consider these verses from the third movement:

He lies in the grave/ I know not where/ Though I ask people/ Everywhere/ Perhaps the poor boy/ Lies in a rough trench/ Instead of lying, as he might,/ In a warm bed.

This could as easily refer to the massacred Polish officers at Katyn as to the victims of Auschwitz.

There have been other symphonic evocations of death. There were the fever-dreams of the condemned man in Berlioz' Symphony Fantastique. There was the bat-winged medieval Angel of Death in Suk's Asrael. There was Bruckner's Symphony no. 9, which may as well have "Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints" embossed on it. And there was Mahler's Ninth, with his joys and despairs all jumbled together and arcing apart until everything just expires in that wispy, plaintive coda. But a single death is a tragedy, and a million deaths are a statistic. How can the sorrow of millions of deaths, millions of scarred souls, millions of muzzled spirits, millions of maimed lives be put across in music? Apparently, like this. Simply and directly, without a lot of flailing orchestration.

The turbid rumble of double-basses at the opening clear away into a sad tune as the strings climb the scale. It's the cinematic equivalent of a slow fade-in, or a long dolly-in to closeup. And then there is Ms. Upshaw's voice, which is as lovely as can be. Then back down the scale we go, into darkness.

The other two movements are much in the manner of the Estonian composer Arvo Part, widely labeled "minimalist", but really the opposite of the soulless work of better-known western composers in that idiom. The music is haunting, beautiful in its simplicity. Gorecki has been reported as being startled at the huge response the symphony elicited abroad, and he has since reverted back to his avant-garde noise-making. Maybe he suspects that he may never connect so profoundly with a wide audience again. No matter. This symphony was an event, and is a keeper.

12:20 PM  
Blogger The Western Confucian said...

Great review. I thank you for it. Coould you post a link to a page with all your reviews?

5:12 AM  
Blogger The Sanity Inspector said...

Sure, they are here, latest to earliest.

5:44 AM  

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Omnes Sancti et Sanctæ Coreæ, orate pro nobis.