Symphony of Sorrowful Songs

Symphony No.3 (Symphony of Sorrowful Songs)

Susan Bullock (soprano)

BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra
David Atherton

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 24 August, 2005
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Post EUYO concert, with the vehemence of Walton’s First Symphony cooled by Elgar’s Sospiri, the Royal Albert Hall filled again – as many people, if not more, in the Arena and the stalls than for the earlier concert, for one of those rare exceptions in contemporary music: a popular hit.

Of course, popular hit mean critical dismissal (that is ignorance of all things human and general pontificating on the simplicity of this work), and yet Henryk Górecki’s Third Symphony – the so-called “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs” – is one of the most important works of the last 30 years. Here is a timeless work about grief; specifically the grief of three women from different times. It may use tonal (perhaps modal) forms and may unfold at a slow pace, but that is the point. Grief is a slow-burn emotion; it nags at your heart and mind and it replays itself incessantly. Górecki hits the nail right on the head.

Programmed to commemorate the end of the Second World War 60 years ago, in the week of VJ day, there was an added poignancy about this Proms performance. Arrayed in unusual formation, with bassoons behind the strings on the far right, double basses facing David Atherton at the back, with the other woodwinds raised high on the left, the slow repetitions of the first movement grew from the lowest strings until Susan Bullock entered, intoning a 15th-century lament of a mother for her son. This, by far the longest movement, has an arch-like construction.

From 500 years later, the graffiti of an 18-year-old girl held in a Polish cell by the Nazis forms the central movement, and has the only overt religious reference, that to Mary. The final movement – here sending me completely onto another, almost meditative plane – sets by far the longest text, a folk-poem about a mother wildly hunting for her missing son, and here I unearthed the key to the success of this performance.

Fearing at first that Bullock was too strident, I realised that the purpose of grief is not only to mourn, but also to get over the loss. By the end, Bullock was not forceful but strong-willed in the face of loss and adversity. She would not be cowed, but would face the world having rationalised her loss through the process of grieving. And given that the work is not openly religious it assumes an even greater universality. Grief is not confined to any one religion, and Górecki’s music is a perfectly acceptable alternative therapy.

With sumptuous, sympathetic tones by the string-heavy BBC Scottish Symphony, conducted with authority by David Atherton who has long championed this work (I first heard him do it in 1989, two years before David Zinman’s recording was issued), “Symphony Of Sorrowful Songs” emerged as a masterpiece, not belittled by its popularity. More than most works it can actually help us understand our world, which continued to be full of hardship, tragedy and loss, and with no tangible signs of improvement.

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