Friday, March 4, 2016

Henryk Górecki: A Nonesuch Retrospective

Nonesuch 7559-79497-4 (7-disc box set) (2016)
Henryk Górecki: A Nonesuch Retrospective
Lerchenmusik: Recitatives and Ariosos Op. 53
Symphony #3 'Symphony of Sorrowful Songs' Op. 36
Symphony #4 'Tansman Episodes' Op. 85
Kleines Requiem für eine Polka Op. 66
Harpsichord Concerto Op. 40
Goodnight Op. 63
Already It Is Dusk (String Quartet #1) Op. 62
Quasi una fantasia (String Quartet #2) Op. 64
Songs are Sung (String Quartet #3) Op. 67
Euentes ebant et flebant Op. 32
Amen Op. 35
Broad Waters Op. 39
Miserere Op. 44
My Vistula, Grey Vistula Op. 46
Dawn Upshaw (soprano)
Elzbieta Chojnacka (harpsichord)
Michael Collins (clarinet)
Christopher van Kampen (cello)
John Constable (piano)
Chicago Symphony Chorus
Lira Chamber Chorus
Kronos Quartet
London Sinfonietta/London Sinfonietta Soloists
London Philharmonic Orchestra
David Zinman (conductor)
Aubrey Boreyeko (conductor)

This will be self-recommending to Górecki fans. The sturdy box contains seven discs, each in its own discrete cardboard sleeve featuring a reproduction of original album-cover art. The music, which first appeared on Nonesuch between 1991 and 2016, is here arranged exactly as in the original issues, with no additional filler material--meaning that some of these discs time out at less than forty minutes. The quality of the recorded sound is excellent throughout. (I can find no reference to re-mastering in the documentation.) The accompanying booklet includes original liner notes along with information about the performances and production personnel. Taken altogether, this is an extremely attractive presentation, lending an apt sense of occasion and gravitas, and should make a welcome addition to any library of late-20th century classics alongside other Nonesuch retrospective sets for, among others, Eliot Carter, Steve Reich, and Philip Glass.

This being said, I have never been especially enthusiastic about Górecki's oeuvre--what a friend of mine once not-half-jokingly referred to as 'the musical equivalent of white noise.' Most of what has been recorded in the last few decades--including everything included in this set--dates from his late, so-called 'holy minimalist' period, which, to my ears, often seems overly spare, acerbic, static, and rather bland. I characterize much of this music as 'the apotheosis of inertia,' for there is very little forward momentum as one would expect from a traditional, linearly-conceived composition, yet neither are there more than a few brief moments of genuinely interesting thematic engagement as in a purely episodic conception. The music seems to stand still, going nowhere, making the same, bombastically un-modulated statement again and again. I don't find this profound or mystical, daring, revolutionary, ingenious, or even particularly original, The best I can say for much of this music is that I don't hate it quite as vehemently as I once did.

This does not mean that a curious listener cannot find interest or pleasure in the music. Górecki is simply one of those composers who require a bit more dedication--and certainly more concentration--on the listener's part. If I dislike something, my inclination is to understand why I dislike it, and, I have to admit that I was able to make something akin to a peace with much of this music after three or four additional listening sessions.

Thus, highlights for me include the choral works on disc 4, which, bleak as they often can be, nonetheless offer listeners something approaching a kind of stark beauty. The Kleines Requiem für eine Polka Op. 66 and the Harpsichord Concerto Op. 40 (both on Disc 5) reveal the occasional flash of humor, and the slow, dark, brooding  Already It Is Dusk (String Quartet #1) Op. 62 surely invites repeated listenings. There is atmosphere to be sure, as in the Szymonowski-esque second movement of the wildly-popular Symphony #3 (Symphony of Sorrowful Songs) which made the composer the darling of the New Age movement in the 1990s, a work, not surprisingly, unique within the composer's oeuvre, a-typically linear, lyrical, consonant, and traditionally accessible--though one wonders how many of those starry-eyed New Agers actually bought the original CD for anything other than 'soothing background music' or a sheep-like need to fit in with the latest popular trend.

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