CHICAGO, January 23, 2016 – At one point surpassing even such pop icons as Prince and Madonna on the Billboard charts, Polish composer Henryk Górecki earned the unique distinction of composing the best selling symphonic recording of the 20th century; namely his Symphony of Sorrowful Songs (Symphony No. 3). But such an astonishing success by a serious, classical music composer can prove to be a mixed blessing.
Given the standard prerequisites for contemporary commercial success in the musical universe, wide-ranging approval and commercial success is often regarded with suspicion in certain discerning circles. This, at least in part, is why it will be interesting to see how the newly released Elektra-Nonesuch recording of the composer’s posthumously published Symphony No. 4 will be received by both the public and the critics.
Music history can take some strange turns. Despite its lush diatonic welcome mat, Górecki’s preceding Symphony of Sorrowful Songs hardly qualifies as easy listening music, making up in uncomfortable emotional intensity what it rejects in terms of modernist dissonance.
One could fairly compare the reception of this symphony—first performed in 2014—to the reception accorded novelist Salman Rushdie’s provocatively titled “Satanic Verses.” Given this novel’s widespread notoriety, it is easy to assume that many more people began to read it than actually finished it, let alone understood it.
Górecki’s Third Symphony presented a spiritual complexity that can only be achieved through musical clarity. In accomplishing this, it helped usher in a new era of authentic modernism, rooted in the deepest authentic humanism, the expression of which reengages with the objective sense of beauty that modernism so cynically jettisoned.
If the Third Symphony has its share of emotional and harmonic complexity and intensity, Górecki’s larger oeuvre contains many moments of both greater transcendence and more striking intensity than what the famous Sorrowful Songs have to offer.
Yet even the international success of his choral music and the shining performances of his chamber music, committed to recordings by the legendary Kronos Quartet, have not managed to put a significant dent in Górecki’s frequent and unjust reputation as a diatonic one-hit wonder.
It is not surprising, therefore, that music fans and critics had mixed reactions – some bordering on dismay – when first encountering Górecki’s posthumously published and premiered Fourth Symphony, which received its first performances at London’s Royal Festival Hall in 2014. The symphony had been completed in short score at the time of the composer’s death in 2010, with instructions for the orchestration left for his son Mikołaj, himself a successful composer, who now makes his home in the United States.
For longtime fans of Górecki’s varied and often challenging work, the Symphony No. 4 (subtitled “Tansman Episodes”), offers both nostalgia and closure of the most engaging kind, revealing to us a composer summoning one last titanic burst of energy with the aim of ending things on his own terms. The 35-minute work is organized into four movements played without interruption and containing references to major moments in the composer’s lifelong aesthetic journey.
The symphony’s opening fortissimo chords crash violently upon us. The notes of the opening chord actually outline the name of the composer memorialized in the subtitle, Alexandre Tansman, a distinguished Polish Jewish composer who made his home in France before and after fleeing to the U.S. during the Second World War.
The symphony’s dramatic opening statement leads to an extended and savage exposition that grows in intensity as three bass drums counterpoint the orchestra’s blasts while a pealing organ joins the deepening cacophony. It is like the violence of birth – personal or national – and it dares the casual listener to see this difficult story through. The sonorities of this massive sound world hearken back to the composer’s Second Symphony (“Copernican”), and even further back to Górecki’s avant-garde past.
The fierce introduction is eventually juxtaposed in the second movement with a moment of reflection and repose that begins with dark and gentle chords in the lower strings. When the clarinet theme is eventually revealed over this gentle, scenic setting, one can easily conjure up images of the misty Tatra Mountains that Górecki adopted for his summer home. Given Górecki’s own underscoring of his nationalism, his love of the Highlander peoples who inhabit the Tatras, and his self-association with other Polish nationalist composers like Karol Szymanowski, the pastorale connection is hardly exaggerated.
The work’s third and longest movement is also its most episodic, opening with a bracingly strident brass melody saddled upon galloping strings. The Polish imagination easily calls up visions of Hussars and Cossacks charging across the vast Ukrainian steppe. The movement’s opening fanfare is cut off abruptly, replaced by the main character in this movement, a gentle and undulating chamber section pairing piano, violins, and flute and marked “Tranquillo.”
The atmosphere here hearkens back to the slower sections of the composer’s string quartets as well as to the pronounced melancholy of his luminous chamber work “Good Night.” This keening and plaintive music occupies the movement’s center and is longest thematic section of the work. It is a luminous reward for those who would travel with the composer into the heart of his music.
In both the opening “Deciso-Marcatissimo” and “Tranquillo” sections of the third movement, we experience the classic Górecki model of thematic “rotation.” Here, an important thematic element is presented, with a portion of that music getting “stuck” and turning repeatedly as if performed on a spinet.
At some point, this repetition seems to exhaust itself, and the consequent phrase or thematic cell is finally granted to the listener. It is an ingenious way by which Górecki can sustain rhythmic excitement or – as in the case of the “Tranquillo” section – a more plaintive and affecting emotional state. The result – at least for patient listeners – is the achievement of a trance-like state, not unlike the sensation minimalists have long offered us, yet often taking us somewhere far deeper, given Górecki’s deep personal spirituality.
The third movement’s gallop returns and charges straight into the boisterous “Allegro Marcato” of the fourth movement. It’s an unmistakably humorous gesture reminiscent of the composer’s Harpsichord Concerto.
The quirky music in this movement – almost cartoonish and circus-like in its innocence – segues cleverly into an apparent quote from “The Chairman Dances,” a composition penned by American minimalist John Adams that served as something of a sketch for his opera “Nixon in China.”
The incessant vamping of this music moves through various guises, eventually ending up expressed by the solo piano. This, in turn, ushers back a variation on the powerful opening chords of the first movement, leading, in turn, to what is perhaps the most curious moment in this symphony: a massively scored quotation from the music of Richard Wagner, the late-Romantic composer of massive operas who, Górecki’s son Mikołaj tells us, was a fascination for his father late in life.
The opening theme returns fully once again as the work charges towards its searing conclusion, landing repeatedly on dissonant chords hammered upon like an immense anvil. If in the first movement this theme sounded defiant, it now sounds terrifying – or, rather, terrified. Suddenly the orchestral blasts vanish into a beautiful elegy in the lower strings. It is almost as if the soul has – in full Mahlerian format – finally accepted its impending departure.
When the dissonant chords strike yet again, all the terror is gone. It is as if the soul is passing painlessly through these final assaults, bursting asunder into its eternal reward as represented by one final gesture: a brief but resolving major chord which seems to render the aforementioned struggle obsolete.
While this symphony is subtitled “Tansman Episodes,” it could just as easily have been called “visions of my homeland.” Both nationalistic and deeply spiritual, as the final, great work of Górecki’s storied career, the symphony defies expectations, leaving the listener with its testament of towering brilliance. This symphony will not win the popularity of its predecessor. But it will surely win the hearts Górecki’s dedicated listeners.
Górecki: Symphony No. 4 (“Tansman Episodes”). World premiere performance recorded live by the London Philharmonic at Royal Festival Hall under the baton of Andrey Boreyko. Elektra-Nonesuch. Release date Jan 22, 2016. Also available as part of a boxed, 7 CD Elektra-Nonesuch Górecki retrospective set including all this label’s recordings of the composer’s works. Individual CD and boxed set available January 22, 2016 from Elektra-Nonesuch, Amazon.com, and other vendors.