Górecki: Symphony No. 3 "Symphony of Sorrowful Songs" (CD review)

Beth Gibbons, soprano; Krzystof Penderecki, Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra. Domino WGC0395.

By Karl W. Nehring

Classical music lovers who have been around for a while may well recall the unexpected popularity of Górecki's Symphony No. 3 "Symphony of Sorrowful Songs" when a Nonesuch recording of this at that time relatively obscure Polish composer by American soprano Dawn Upshaw with the London Sinfonietta under the baton of American conductor David Zinman became a worldwide bestseller after its release in 1992, eventually selling a million copies, which was (and remains) an incredible achievement for a classical release of any kind – but especially so for music by a contemporary composer. The mournful, plaintive work seemed to strike a resonant chord in the hearts and minds of both classical fans and what appeared to be a significant cross-section of many other types of music lovers. Speaking from my own experience, I remember a business associate who rarely discussed music gushing enthusiastically about the Górecki, which really surprised me, and my wife -- who enjoys classical music but does not usually have much to say about the recordings I play on our home -- falling immediately head-over-heels for the piece and it remains to this day one of the few pieces she will from time to time request that I put on the stereo.

I also love the symphony and listened to several other recordings over the years (a quick scan of my CD rack reveals that I currently own three recordings – Gritton/Simonov/Royal Philharmonic on Intersound, Kilanowicz/Wit/Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra on Naxos, and the aforementioned Nonesuch). When I am in the mood to listen to the Górecki, it is the Nonesuch to which I nearly always return. It is a wonderful recording.

My interest was perked a couple of months or so ago when I read somewhere of the forthcoming release of a recording of the piece sung by not by some or another opera star but rather by Beth Gibbons, lead singer for the British electronic band Portishead, whose 1994 release Dummy made big waves in the rock world and eventually sold more than three million copies worldwide. So how does a rock singer who neither speaks Polish nor reads music – and does not really have a soprano voice – prepare to sing Polish lyrics as a soprano?

Krzystof Penderecki
According to her website, "she worked from an especially prepared vocal score bearing the original text, a phonetic interpretation, and – crucially - a translation… Beth's voice is, in classical terms, a contralto; Górecki wrote for a soprano, one register higher. While she had ventured into the soprano range before – the chorus of 'All Mine,' from Portishead's second album, for instance – she hadn't spent a sustained stretch of time there in performance. So she had vocal coaching – from Caroline Jaya-Ratnam in England, then Anna Marchwinska from Poland, with whom she also refined the pronunciation."

My goodness, it is difficult to imagine the determination and dedication – and bravery—that that it must have taken not just to learn the piece, but to plan to sing and record it not in some studio somewhere so that the engineer and producer could carefully assemble a finished product, not in a live performance with some second- or third-tier British orchestra, but rather in Warsaw with the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by a prominent Polish composer and conductor.

The concert was held in November, 2014 (not sure why it took nearly five years for the recording to be released), and as you can see from the cover of the CD, included an element borrowed from a rock concert in terms of a light show that accompanied the performance. What a spectacle! 

So how did it all turn out? Although Ms. Gibbons seems a bit shaky at the beginning, she soon hits her stride and delivers a solid performance. Judging from the recorded sound, her voice may have been amplified a bit; in any event, it is prominent in the recorded mix, which also seems to favor a close-up perspective on the orchestra. The tempi chosen by Maestro Penderecki seem slightly on the slow side (a comparison of the movement timings with the Nonesuch release confirmed that). This may have been to make it easier to sing, but it also has the effect of increasing the opportunity to reflect emotions. This is, after all, a symphony of sorrowful songs.

All told, this would not be my first recommendation for the classical music lover who has for one reason or another never heard the Górecki Third. I would instead direct that listener to the Nonesuch release, which remains my favorite version.

However, although readers by now might think I don't really care that much for this release, I actually love it! I find it moving. I find it exciting. I find that it really does sound like a symphony of truly sorrowful songs. For listeners coming from a non-classical music perspective (although I doubt many of them follow Classical Candor, alas), this recording might well be a splendid way to whet their appetites for more classical recordings. And for those already familiar with the Górecki Third, I would recommend this new recording to offer them a refreshing and stimulating perspective on a piece they may have heard many times before.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below:

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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on the Big Jon and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simpleminded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my cell phone. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa