The first of this Season’s BBC Symphony Orchestra Total Immersion Days was devoted to the music of Henryk Górecki, five years since the Polish composer’s death and two decades since the Nonesuch recording of his Third Symphony transformed his standing around the western world. That such success came over 15 years after its premiere is just one of the ironies which surrounds Górecki; another being that this success, far from enhancing his creativity, arguably inhibited it so his final decade saw completion of few large-scale pieces. Such issues were explored in Violetta Rotter-Kozera’s often ramshackle yet provocative film Please Find Henryk Mikołaj Górecki, shown in the course of what amounted to an engrossing if (inevitably?) incomplete overview; and not only because that ‘Symphony of Sorrowful Songs’ was (rightly) not included.
The lunchtime recital (at St Giles) brought the Silesian Quartet in the first two of the three String Quartets that Górecki wrote either side of his sudden catapulting to fame. The first of these, ‘Already It Is Dusk’ (1988), unfolds as a tensile single movement – its deployment of old Polish music, plangent harmonies, and alternation between homophonic writing and contrapuntal dexterity all being typical of the composer’s mature output. The Silesian players rendered it with the necessary conviction, and were no less committed in its successor (1991). Titled ‘Quasi una fantasia’, this falls into four movements and is on an appreciably larger scale; the first three of these – an inwardly communing Largo, a trenchantly incisive Deciso, then an ‘Arioso’ that imbues its allusions with an anguish redolent of Alfred Schnittke – preparing for the sizeable Finale, an Allegro that draws elements of the preceding into a freely evolving sequence whose ending manages to be conclusive in its very equivocation. The Silesian musicians again delivered an impressive reading, causing regret that the even-more-imposing Third Quartet did not follow after an interval.
The late-afternoon concert (also St Giles) interleaved choral and piano music so as to underline the range of Górecki’s composing over half a century. Under the attentive direction of David Hill, the BBC Singers brought poise as well as verve to Totus tuus (1987) – the John Paul II tribute likely to be Górecki’s most enduring piece – and found deftness to leaven the devotion of the five Marian Songs (1985). No less affecting was Audi clamantes, audi plorantes (1986), last of 21 Church Songs that Górecki carefully arranged only to withhold from performance.
Between these works, Emiko Edwards gave notice of a very different side to Górecki’s music with two piano pieces. Written in 1955 but unheard publicly for 15 years, the Four Preludes amount to a ‘sonatina’ whose angularity suggests the more rebarbative aspects of Bartók and Prokofiev, while the Piano Sonata – composed in 1956 and twice revised before its premiere in 1990 – evinces an almost futurist aggression during acerbic outer movements which frame a central Lento whose speculative manner suggests Szymanowski in its restive inwardness.
The evening concert saw Antoní Wit conduct the BBC Symphony Orchestra in a concert that pointed up the often disjunctive evolution of Górecki’s output. Interest doubtless centred on the first British performance of Kyrie (2005) which is all that was realised of what would have been a Mass on the largest scale. As it stands, this 15-minute entity is complete in itself – the austere build-up to the choir’s baleful entry finding contrast in the restrained radiance at “Christe eleison”, and that returns at the close as the opening words are discreetly intoned in Polish. The BBC Symphony Chorus sounded thoroughly attuned to this music, as did Mahan Esfahani in the Harpsichord Concerto (1980) as remains among its composer’s most striking and appealing works – its two brief and continuous movements, the first as trenchant as the second is capricious – a critique of minimalist procedures at a time when the ethos of post-modernism had barely come-of-age. Wisely eschewing the animated immediacy of dedicatee Elisabeth Chojnacka, Esfahani rendered this engaging piece with suitably deadpan elegance.
Framing these very different pieces were works that, between them, show Górecki at crucial stages of his evolution – in the case of Old Polish Music (1969), moving from the anarchic impact of earlier orchestral pieces towards a more stable and grounded unfolding. Here the borrowed elements are Medieval and Renaissance chants are hinted at in the most oblique terms during the succession of tumultuous brass fanfares and ethereal string textures, which latter expand into a chorale that comes to the fore with the glowing final stages. A not dissimilar progression is charted even more graphically in the Second Symphony (1972), its ‘Copernican’ subtitle embodied in two movements where known and imagined systems of thought are represented by, first, a journey from textural volatility to stability; then one from harmonic striving to fulfilment – the latter confirmed by a culminating chord that functions as destination and benediction. Marie Arnet and Marcus Farnsworth were potent vocal soloists, while Wit secured an unsparing orchestral response in a work which ranks among Górecki’s finest.
That it was not the climax of his output, any more than was the Third Symphony, is just one of the more intriguing aspects of an output as unpredictable as any of those from his relative contemporaries. Even now that the long planned Fourth Symphony has been performed, Górecki’s output can hardly be said to have come full-circle in any real sense – a testament, perhaps, to a sensibility which never sought artistic arrival, and certainly not the commercial acclaim which arrived too late to provide any creative incentive.
Speculations such as these could hardly hope to have been answered by a day-long event such as this, yet in putting on a pertinent cross-section of his music in responsive performances, it at least focussed attention on a composer who, easy to side-line or take for granted, remains hard to assess objectively.