Henryk Górecki (1933–2010)

Henryk GóreckiI was sorry to hear that Henryk Górecki had died today at the age of 76. Earlier this year, I attended what should have been the world première of his 4th symphony. Unfortunately, the performance didn’t go ahead, we were told because ill health meant Górecki had been unable to complete the work. It was replaced in the programme by his 3rd symphony, the Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, the work that brought him international fame, and the recording of which reached number 6 in the UK album chart (between albums by Paul McCartmey and REM!). By the time I bought my ticket, I already knew of the change, but thought it was worth seeing a live performance of the older work (the concert also featured the European première of Philip Glass’s second violin concerto). Who knows what sort of symphony No. 4 would be, how finished it was, or whether it’ll ever be completed by anyone else (as were Elgar’s 3rd and Mahler’s 10th). Would it have included a vocal solo? How minimalist would it be? Hopefully one day we’ll find out.

Few of Górecki’s works are performed regularly. In his earlier days he was rather more avant-garde. I seem to remember finding his 2nd symphony quite unlistenable. As well as the 3rd symphony, popular works include Three pieces in the old style and Totus Tuus. It’s a pity that it’s only the shorter middle movement of the 3rd symphony that tends to be heard. It fits better into the schedules of the likes of Classic FM, but I recommend anyone who hasn’t heard the whole work sets aside an hour to listen at least once. The opening movement is my favourite and makes up nearly half of the symphony. It features a phrase that repeats as the strings move slowly up through the octaves and in volume before pausing for the first appearance of the soprano. After the short vocal section, as she sings her last note, the full strings crash in again and perform the crescendo in reverse, ending up with just the bases as it started. And at the other end of the work, the final movement finishes calmly in a pleasant major key, unlike the famous second movement – welcome reassurance after subject matter all about sad loss that the world is not always such a bad place.

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