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Leslie Wright
MusicWeb International, August 2011

It is well known that Henryk Górecki received worldwide fame practically overnight with the 1992 release on Nonesuch of his Symphony No. 3. The artists were the London Sinfonietta under David Zinman with Dawn Upshaw as soprano soloist and they were recorded in May 1991.

Though he composed the symphony as long ago as 1976, he was little known outside his native Poland until that rather freak occurrence. While he is probably still best known today for that symphony, the two works on the CD under review are far more typical of the composer’s style. The first of these, the Kleines Requiem, is the best place for a listener who knows only the Third Symphony to gain a real appreciation of Górecki’s music. The symphony with its three successive slow movements is very static in nature. The Requiem contrasts the static (first and last movements) with the dynamic (second and third). As Bernard Jacobson suggests in his very illuminating notes, the influence of Messiaen on Górecki with his contrasts of loud and soft is very apparent in both works. Jacobson also mentions Bartók and Janáček as composers who have similarities to Górecki, the latter in the use of incisive and lively rhythmic patterns. I hear a greater likeness to one of Górecki’s direct contemporaries, the Georgian Giya Kancheli whose music often emphasizes sudden dynamic contrasts.

Whereas much of Górecki’s music is very dark and serious, the Kleines Requiem für eine Polka contains humorous elements. This is notable in the third movement which is in fact a catchy polka. The work begins very quietly with the piano playing a simple tune with tubular bells accompanying softly. The violins enter with a melody over the piano. After about five minutes, the music suddenly gets loud but soon retreats to its earlier mood with the piano’s simple tune with bells. It ends quietly. The second movement breaks in without a pause and is loud and agitated with brass taking the lead. Then comes the comic polka led by the strings and winds with the piano playing the polka rhythm. The last movement returns to the quiet of the first with a bell sounding before the strings play a lyrical hymn. The bell and piano are in the background until the horn adds a quiet solo to the mix. It continues thus until near the end when the piano and distant bells make a passing reference to the opening of the first movement. Górecki composed the work for the performers on this disc, so one may justifiably call this recording authoritative. It is certainly well performed by the thirteen members of the ensemble, which includes flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, trumpet, trombone, percussion, two violins, viola, cello and double bass. Of all the Górecki I’ve heard I find this the most interesting, as it does not outstay its welcome.

Lerchenmusik for clarinet, cello, and piano, on the other hand, can try one’s patience. It is nearly twice as long as the Requiem but lacks the sheer variety of the other work. It comprises three movements, each basically in a slow tempo. The first movement begins quietly in the lower register of the cello and for the first six minutes or so it remains quiet. Then the piano explodes with a series of loud incessantly repeated birdcalls over the cello—all very reminiscent of Messiaen. A couple of minutes later there is a new, loud pattern taken up by the clarinet. This also repeats and then combines with the birdcalls. The movement ends quietly and one is relieved that it is over. The second movement features the clarinet with a solo in the beginning that builds slowly until it too becomes loud and nearly unbearable. Luckily, the piano takes over later and the movement ends quietly. The three instruments come together in the finale with the piano playing repeated chords similar to those in the first movement of Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto. However, after about a minute of quiet chords, the music gets loud and there are more insistent avian noises. These alternate with the quiet chords and make this movement easier to digest than the others. There is a particularly beautiful passage starting at 3:36, where the Beethovenian repeated chords on the piano over a sustained cello line create a hymn-like atmosphere. And so it continues for some fifteen minutes with the quiet even restful music alternating with louder pounding chords on the piano. At one point Górecki quotes Beethoven directly, before the clarinet enters with a songful passage accompanied by cello and piano. The music dies away quietly, with the piano playing softly in a high register. Like the other work on the disc, one cannot imagine a better performance than the one here.

…this is a reissue of material originally appearing on the Philips label and is offered at budget cost. The entire production, including Bernard Jacobson’s invaluable notes, is fully up to the standards of a full-priced CD.

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3:15:05 AM, 6 March 2015
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