Antoni Wit Conducts Henryk Gorecki

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GÓRECKI Beatus Vir 1,5,6. Symphonies Nos. 2 1,2,5,6 and 3 2,6. 3 Olden Style Pieces 6. Little Requiem for a Certain Polka. 3,7 Concerto-Cantata. 3,4,7 Harpsichord Concerto 3,7. 3 Dances, op. 34 7 Antoni Wit, cond; 1 Andrzej Dobber (bar); 2 Zofia Kilanowicz (s); 3 Anna Górecka (pn); 4 Carol Wincenc (fl); 5 Polish Radio Ch; 5 Silesian P Ch; 6 Polish Natl RSO; 7 Warsaw PO NAXOS 8.503268 (3 CDs: 202:48)

This is a new boxed set repackaging three previously single discs issued by Naxos between 1994 (Symphony No. 3) and 2011 (the concertos and Dances). All, of course, are still available singly, but it’s nice to have them all here in one set.

For musicians and serious collectors, Wit’s performance of the famous Symphony No. 3 has always been the one to acquire, not the much more glib, slick performance by David Zinman on Nonesuch. Wit is a conductor who penetrates the heart of every work he performs; I’m convinced that it is only because he operates mostly in his native Poland that he is not better appreciated as one of the five or six greatest living conductors. Everything I’ve heard by him is at the very least thoughtful and emotionally intense, and most of it the equal or superior of any other versions. Moreover, he has, by and large, very good taste in selecting singers for those symphonies and cantatas that require them, and this, too, enhances his reputation for me.

Although most of the music is religious in nature, it is so well written and so emotionally engaging that one does not need to subscribe to Górecki’s belief system in order to appreciate these works. Beatus Vir, for instance, was dedicated to Pope John Paul II, who was also from Poland, the world premiere in June 1979 being conducted by the composer himself. Those familiar with the personality of this late, great Pope will understand how much this work meant to him, as the quotations Górecki used from the Psalms accurately reflect John Paul II’s personal beliefs and feelings. Baritone Dobber’s dark, bronze timbre and heartfelt singing bring out the inner feelings of the music, and Wit’s conducting supports him every step of the way.

The Second Symphony was written to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the birth of Copernicus in 1973. As the notes indicate, this particular work was a summary of Górecki’s previous compositional style, which had been much more atonal with a lot of tone clusters à la Penderecki or Ligeti. This “in between” Symphony uses great blocks of sound in the beginning but ends with a four-part chorus “expressing man’s delight in the beauty and order of God’s creation, using Copernicus’s own words from De revolutionibus orbium. ” The first movement is the closest to Penderecki, with almost grating orchestral textures (including a group of trombones playing together a semitone apart and sounding like a group of angry bees and, later on, a wordless chorus singing along with winds and brass), possibly representing the initial chaos of the Universe. Things quiet down as the soprano enters, singing a text in Latin about the creation of the heavens and the earth. The Symphony ends quietly, with peace and order restored. Górecki is now in the later phase of his compositional style.

I won’t retread the Third Symphony because it is so familiar to listeners, but this is, as I said, its best recording. In the third disc, recorded in 2011, we start out with the Little Requiem for a Certain Polka, initially a soft mood piece with gently interspersed piano along with a very high solo violin. The next two movements, quite busy and loud, feature insistent ostinato rhythms, the second featuring trombones prominently along with the piano and the third played mostly by high winds while the piano plays a marcato bass line. We are fortunate here to have Górecki’s daughter, Anna, to play the piano part. The ringing of a Requiem bell and a soft string melody reminiscent of the opening of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture start out the quiet last movement. The Concerto-Cantata, a first recording, was composed a year before the Little Requiem (1992) and features, yet again, quiet, slow-moving passages at the outset, which are then interrupted by occasional loud string passages. But since this work was written for flute and orchestra, most of the music is lyrical. Flautist Wincenc gave the world premiere of this piece with the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic in 1992, and here reprises her role. The solemn, shifting moods that one is familiar with in late Górecki are exploited to the full in this unusual work, and for the most part his style now is tonal and the overall ambience somber.

This performance of the 1980 Harpsichord Concerto is in a version adapted for piano and again played by Górecka. I would have wished that she could have learned the part on the harpsichord for the simple reason that I feel its lighter, brighter timbre suits the music better, but it is a good performance. The music is in some ways typical of late Górecki with its simple, almost minimalist harmonies and ostinato rhythms. The Three Dances, which date from the same year as the Second Symphony (1973), are already in Górecki’s later style, meaning simpler in terms of both theme and gesture and headed in the direction of defined tonality.

I enjoyed all three discs although, perhaps, the third is less essential listening than the first two. If you wish to acquire those two discs singly, their numbers are 8.555375 (Symphony 2 and Beatus Vir ) and 8.550822 (Symphony No. 3).

FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: 8503268

  • UPC: 747313326839

  • Label: Naxos

  • Composer: Henryk Mikolaj Górecki

  • Conductor: Antoni Wit

  • Performer: Andrzej Dobber, Anna Górecka, Carol Wincenc, Zofia Kilanowisz