Henryk Górecki’s Symphony No. 3 (Symphony Of Sorrowful Songs) premiered in 1977. It hovered around in relative obscurity until a recording of the London Sinfonietta with soprano vocalist Dawn Upshaw brought it to more mainstream ears (Elektra Nonesuch, 1992). We have to fast forward nearly 40 years from the inaugural performance to the Teatr Wielki—Opera Narodowa in Warsaw when listening to this recording of the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Krzysztof Penderecki. Beth Gibbons, vocalist and co-founder of the band Portishead, is the solo soprano.
Penderecki sets a stately pace for the deeply meditative and contrapuntal Lento—Sostenuto tranquillo ma cantabile. The symphony is well known for its simple, neo-modal compositional style and gentle, emotive strings that at times overwhelm the listener; the second movement, Lento e largo—Tranquillissimo, typifies this. It was inspired by a message written on the wall of a Gestapo cell in Zakopane during the Second World War. The modern day serenity that embodies Zakopane – a beautiful town in the Góral region flanked by the Tatra mountains – makes it difficult to comprehend the unimaginable horrors that occurred during that time. Gibbons’ vocals ascend in transcendental flight as she sings the Polish words, “No, Mother, do not weep. Most chaste Queen of Heaven, support me always”. Considered by many an unorthodox singer and probably a mezzo-soprano, Gibbons sings the higher notes as if in eternal repose.
The verses of Lento—Cantabile-semplice span multiple octaves and build upon a recurring, progressive motif. The movement is a modern interpretation of a folk song about a mother searching for her son killed in the Silesian uprisings: “Where has he gone, my dear young son?” she asks. Gibbons and Penderecki have both visited the subject of war before; Gibbons contributed to Clarion Call, an audio installation that commemorated the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War, and Penderecki’s composition, Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima, is a solemn dedication to the those that perished in Japan.
Gibbons is not the first UK trip-hop artist to approach this symphony. The enigmatic duo Lamb sampled the second movement in their single, Górecki . Another notable recording is the American saxophonist Colin Stetson’s Sorrow. In an interview Stetson used the word “transfixing” when describing the Elektra Nonesuch recording of the symphony. Listeners may well choose to use the same word when listening to this performance.