Revisiting Górecki, Part One: New posthumous choral works

Polish composer Henryk Górecki. (Via Wikipedia entry on the composer)

COLLEGE PARK, Md., March 7, 2014 – At his death in November 2010, the great Polish composer Henryk Górecki left not only a profound musical void behind him, but also a series of (characteristically and fittingly) unanswered questions.

For example: What of the fourth symphony and fourth string quartets? What of the many potentially incredible fragments in his notebooks, as testified to by the witness of his biographer Adrian Thomas? As the famous recluse was known to incubate his finished works for years after they were completed – he made the Kronos Quartet wait ten years before he finally handed over his third string quartet – were there other unpublished gems that his adoring public would be treated to in the future?

Górecki grave, Katowice, Poland. (Via Dux)
Górecki grave, Katowice, Poland. (Via Dux)

Now almost four years after his passing, the final works of Górecki are beginning to emerge. If early glimpses are any indication, they will make a fitting epilogue to a brave and brilliant career. His fourth symphony – realized with the help of his composer son, Mikołaj –is set for its UK premiere in April by the London Philharmonic Orchestra (LPO) as well as its American premiere by the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Boosey & Hawkes is boasting of further new Górecki publications, such as an hour-long cantata composed in honor of St. Adalbert and scored for soprano and baritone soloists, chorus and orchestra; as well as a large-scale setting of the “Kyrie” text for SATB chorus, piano, string orchestra, and percussion.

This article is primarily concerned with the recent publication of his “Church Songs,” perhaps the most personal of all of these much-anticipated works. They have recently received a commercial recording by the Cracow Singers under the direction of Włodzimierz Siedlik, released through DUX records and distributed through Naxos.

In these “Church Songs,” Górecki arranges traditional Polish liturgical and religious hymns and songs, taking aesthetic ownership of a music that was so near to his own heart. Polish listeners will immediately recognize the melodies, while everyone else will hear choral works that resonate with characteristic Góreckian brightness and reverence. There are many listeners for whom Górecki’s choral works have become a part of life’s fabric. For these aficionados, the weave of this composer’s rich musical tapestry is about to be beautifully expanded.

From the very first notes of “O Matko Miłościwa” (“Oh Mother Loving”), we are treated to Górecki’s unique harmonic language, somehow both ancient and entirely new in conception. The music is simple, reverent, and entirely satisfying.

Siedlik’s Cracow Singers have clearly connected with the music in a deeply personal way, while their ensemble execution on this recording borders on perfection. These may be simple pieces, but they are executed with clearly evident love and fierce attention to detail.

Recording engineer Marcin Guz deserves specific praise for this recording, which was made in the Church of Our Lady of Fatima in Krakow. The choir feels immediately present on the recording, evidenced by their precise diction and striking ensemble balance, yet with a sound firmly situated within this beautifully reverberant space. In fact, the resonance and reverberation of the decaying chords in this church simply breathtaking on this disc.

There are critics who have mistakenly accused Henryk Górecki of going soft in his later years. Yet they somehow manage to miss the pleading nature of his final works, positioned as they are within often more gentle musical landscapes. One-dimensional listening aside, these final works may represent among the most honest and authentic expressions of the composer’s career, written, as they were, years after success or public opinion had ceased to matter to him.

Where the Church Songs are concerned, there seems to be no gap between these traditional songs and Górecki’s entirely original choral works, but rather a seamless common language with tradition. This is perhaps the secret to their power, and the reason that every Górecki choral work sounds immediately timeless.

Rating: **** (4 out of 4 stars)

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