Belated Górecki Symphony Falls Short Of Hit 3rd

Polish composer Henryk Gorecki
Gorecki’s disappointing Fourth Symphony received a posthumous U.S.. premiere by the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
By Richard S. Ginell

LOS ANGELES — Few pieces of contemporary music have caught on with as much overwhelmingly emotional impact as Henryk Górecki’s Symphony No. 3 did in the 1990s. Consequently, few pieces of contemporary music have been as anticipated as Górecki’s Symphony No. 4, the long-awaited followup to his unlikely hit symphony. And unfortunately – upon a first hearing, at least – the late Polish composer’s last symphony is nothing to get excited about.

There is a good story, though, behind its U.S. premiere Jan. 16 at Walt Disney Concert Hall with Andrey Boreyko and the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Górecki’s Symphony No. 3 – subtitled Symphony of Sorrowful Songs – was written in 1976 but few outside the circle of followers of the Polish avant-garde knew about it. I first heard it in 1986 on an Erato LP that masqueraded as the soundtrack for the film Police. I was stunned by the beauty and sadness of the first movement’s cascading string canons, as if Górecki had captured all of the suffering that the 20th century had to offer, eventually giving way to a beacon of light in the end.

Gorecki Symphony No. 3 cover with Dawn Upshaw
The Nonesuch release with Dawn Upshaw sold over a million CDs.

Only when a 1991 Nonesuch recording by David Zinman and Dawn Upshaw started getting saturation airplay on classical radio did the symphony become a surprise hit, selling over a million CDs – and one can only imagine the pressure upon the often-ailing composer to produce a sequel in that style. Górecki resisted, took his time, and eventually spent four years working on a Fourth Symphony that was scheduled to receive its world premiere in London in 2010 and its U.S. premiere in the hands of Gustavo Dudamel and the LA Phil – which co-commissioned the work – in June 2011.

Alas, Górecki’s health gave way and he died in November 2010 before he could orchestrate the Fourth, leaving only a piano short score with details about the orchestration. Both premieres were cancelled, and there matters stood until Górecki’s son Mikolaj, also a composer, undertook the task of filling in the orchestration. Boreyko then took on the world premiere May 12, 2014, with the London Philharmonic and the U.S. premiere in Los Angeles.

Conductor Andrey Boreyko (Archiv Kunstler)
Boreyko spotted Philip Glass in Gorecki’s symphony. (Archiv Kunstler)

Like the Third Symphony, and the Second (Copernicus), the Fourth Symphony has a subtitle, Tansman Episodes, inspired by discussions at a Lodz conference named after the Polish composer Alexandre Tansman. Indeed, the five notes of the symphony’s main motif were constructed from the letters of Tansman’s name, and they come at us in the beginning in a monolithic block whose harmony is soon shattered by an overlay of dissonance from the pipe organ. From here on, the subtitle becomes ironically accurate, for the 37-minute symphony in four continuous movements proceeds episodically, with quiet interludes alternating with portentous blasts of sound, separated by abrupt cutoffs as if shut off by a switch. The language is much closer to that of Górecki’s tough-minded Second Symphony than the anguished Third, but the ideas are not as fresh, subjected to sometimes annoying repetition.

There is some humor in the lengthy fourth movement as the winds sound a saucy tune over a fast polka-like beat – Philip Glass meets Aram Khachaturian, if you will – with more of those strange pauses. Mostly, though, the piece comes off like an unfinished tombstone, a composer earnestly grasping for something to say, drawing upon everything in his past, but finding little left in his tank. (In a post-concert discussion, Boreyko said the piece had no obvious program but he found quotations from Siegfried’s Funeral March, Szymanowski’s Stabat Mater, some Mussorgsky, and yes, Glass, too). The schedule of upcoming performances of Gorecki works includes the Fourth Symphony Feb. 14 by the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra and May 25 by the Polish Baltic Philharmonic.

Though Górecki’s posthumous symphony, sadly, was a letdown, the program as a whole was quite well-thought-out, for Boreyko came up with a companion piece by Tansman that was, in turn, a tombstone for another composer, Stèle in memoriam Igor Stravinsky. (A stèle is a slab-like grave marker.) Now here was a piece made for the acoustics of Disney Hall, where the swirls of spectacular color and mildly dissonant melees punctuated by mallet percussion made a marvelous noise. Interestingly, there isn’t nearly as much of a Stravinsky influence in this piece as there is in other Tansman works like his middle symphonies (I hear more of Hindemith in the central movement). Only in the third movement’s unsentimental elegy is there a feeling of in memoriam for the composer in the title.

Nikolaj Znaider (George Lange)
Nikolaj Znaider: incisive Sibelius Violin Concerto. (George Lange)

Sandwiched between these memorial pieces was Sibelius’s Violin Concerto, with its stoic combination of fire and ice in equal parts. Nikolaj Znaider had all the technique one would need to survive Sibelius’s obstacle course, hitting most things incisively without forcing his tone, maintaining a conversation with himself phrase by phrase. Yet the Sibelius concerto is almost invariably taken slower these days than it was a couple of generations ago; compare most of the recordings from before 1970 and those made afterwards and you’ll hear consistently big differences. The Boreyko-Znaider team followed that trend, while dutifully observing current customs like slowdowns in the opening movement that break the structure apart and halt the momentum, or no rhythm in the thrumming opening of the third movement, just a low rumble. But with Znaider’s emphatic attacks and Boreyko invoking a semblance of Finnish darkness, at least the performance projected the concerto’s essentially rugged nature.

Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times, and is also the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide and the West Coast regional editor for Classical Voice North America.