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 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: