Friday 18 April 2014

Not forgettable: Górecki’s final symphony

Henryk Gorecki
Henryk Gorecki
Gorecki, Tansman & Stravinsky: Julian Rachlin, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Andrey Boreyko; South Bank Centre
Reviewed by Hilary Glover on April 12 2014
Star rating: 4.5

World premiere of Henryk Gorecki's fourth and final symphony

Alexandre Tansman with his first wife Anna Eleonora Brociner
Alexandre Tansman
with his first wife
Anna Eleonora Brociner
This memorial concert has been a long time in the planning but was worth the wait. Henryk Mikołaj Górecki’s (1933-2010) magnificent fourth and final symphony, originally planned for a premiere in 2010, was a masterclass in restricted material composition, and made great use of the newly restored organ at the Royal Festival Hall.

Symphony no. 4 (Tansman Episodes) was original commissioned by the London Philharmonic Orchestra and South Bank Centre. Although completed in 2006 by Górecki as a short score, it was only orchestrated by his son Mikolaj, a composer in his own right, after Górecki’s death. The Tansman episodes are in fact a musical transcription of Tansman’s name (A-(Le)A-E-(S)Eb-A-D-E-(Re)D, (T)C-A-(S)Eb-(Mi)E-A).

Supporting the Górecki was Alexander Tansman’s (1897-1986) Stèle in memoriam Igor Stravinsky and Stravinsky’s (1882-1971) Violin concerto in D, with young Russian conductor Andrey Boreyko conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Julian Rachlin as the violin soloist.

Polish Tansman was born into a musical family and began composing when he was only about nine. By 1919 he was winning national composition prizes in Poland and moved to Paris, becoming naturalised in 1938. However, like many, as the political situation in Europe worsened he moved to America, settling in Los Angeles where he became friends with Stravinsky. So much so that two years after returning to France Tansman wrote a book about Stravinsky and in 1972 wrote Stèle in memoriam Igor Stravinsky (Stèle are tall memorial stones).

Andrey Boreyko - credit Christoph Ruttger
Andrey Boreyko
credit Christoph Ruttger
Tansman’s time spent in Hollywood was evident from the start of this piece. The first movement Elegia, Lento was lyrical and felt as though it was just about to break into a show tune. Using a huge orchestra and lots of pitched percussion Tansman had a lot of different colours to play with yet it remained traditional in feel. The second movement Studio ritmico was more frantic with the brass leading over high scrubbing strings. This idea framed a central quieter fugal-sounding section, beginning on piccolo and crescendo-ing to a repeat of the tune on violin. Continuing to increase in volume, the brass returned for a frenetic ending.

If the second movement was despair and fury, the final movement Lamento, Lento was introspective, with quiet woodwind and pizzicato strings. Now the brass were subdued and muted, and the melody pastoral. Ideas from previous movements were revisited, and new motifs, with a heavy nod towards Stravinsky, played with. The last drawn out chord tapered away into nothing.

Julian Rachlin - credit Julia Wesely
Julian Rachlin - credit Julia Wesely
Julian Rachlin was the soloist for Stravinsky’s Concerto in D. Written in 1931 for Samuel Dushkin this is an example of Stravinsky’s neoclassical phase. Very similar in feel to Dumbarton Oaks it should chug along quiet merrily in a relaxing fashion. However, despite the reduced orchestra, it was difficult to hear the soloist above the orchestra, and the work as a whole seemed disjointed as though more than one line was missing.

Similarly to Tansman, Gorecki was born in Poland to musical parents but his music was largely unknown outside of Poland until the 1980s. His third Symphony, Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, written in 1976 became popular in 1992 due to a recording made to commemorate the memory of those lost during the Holocaust. Different sources talk about Górecki’s anxiety about his music and after this publicity it took another 14 years before Górecki completed his fourth symphony. Even so he was not ready to share it with the world. Many dates came and went for its premiere but its orchestration remained incomplete by the time Górecki died.

All four movements of Symphony no. 4 (Tansman Episodes) are to be played straight through. Some breaks were evident some seemed to fit with the movements others a separate scheme of Górecki’s. The full orchestra was back, complete with the newly restored organ in all its glory, and began with everyone playing the ‘episode’ interspersed with three bass drums thumping an interruption. The repeating line was so mesmeric that when it changed the alteration felt like an intrusion. When the organ joined in, in a different key, the chord pressurised and the melody began to fragment.

After the shock of a general pause a few poignantly quiet bars on piano and xylophone were interrupted by single orchestral crashes. Cellos and basses began a quiet, mournful, contrapuntal melody, but this was also interrupted by chords - the interruptions became shorter and shorter until single iterations. When the woodwind joined the cellos with a new melody taken from Szymanowski’s Stabat mater the interruptions moved to more subdued tubular bells. Similarly to the earlier additions to the Tansman episode, after a few repeats the strings joined in, in a different key, to be followed by a reprise of woodwind.

Another break heralded a change in mood to a more Stravinskian, mechanistic neoclassical feel with cellos and brass, which constrasted with watery almost Debussian piano and cello interludes. This idea moved through the smaller chamber orchestra, increasing in tempo and volume to a sudden silence. The idea was then fragmented and the orchestra became stuck on repeats of four then two notes before a return to the Stravinkian theme.

A new theme, a folk dance with Klezmer clarinets and brass interrupted by a descending scale on violins began the fourth movement. These were both interspersed by a rhythmic repeated figure from the first movement. A piano solo brought back the Tansman theme at a slower pace with chorale harmonisation, stepping down through keys. Everyone else begins to join in until the opening material was clearly there, including the organ.

One last quiet, consonant statement by the strings heralded the last few chords followed by a drum roll to the very last shout.

I have listened to the symphony several times since the concert, and its power remains mesmeric. The concert was being filmed so at some point I expect that it will be on television, and I would definitely recommend a listen. It will also be interesting to hear if studio magic will improve the Stravinsky experience by balancing the sound from different microphones.
Reviewed by Hilary Glover
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