Los Angeles Times, 6 October 1997 [1]

Music Review

by Mark Swed

When Henryk Górecki’s Third Symphony was at its height of popularity a couple of years ago, it was said that a week didn’t go by without a performance of it somewhere in the world. A cheeky classical music radio station in London broadcast one of the symphony’s three movements every day for months on end. I remember, at the time, seeing a group of hyperactive punk rockers with spiky green and orange hair in Boots—a British pharmacy that also sells CDs—stocking up on amphetamines, chocolate bars and recordings of the Górecki Third. They said, when asked what the attraction to the music was, that it was “brilliant” for chilling out.

Record labels rushed to the studio to see if they too could cash in on some of the magic of the 1992 Nonesuch recording, which started the phenomenon and is, by now, a million-seller, despite the competition of eight other performances of the symphony currently in print. But Górecki himself has steered clear of all the sensation. On occasion, he might be enticed away from Katowice, the Polish city in which he lives, to attend a performance or, even more rarely, meet the press. Still, the symphony of slow, spiritual music of lamentation for orchestra and soprano, written in obscurity in 1976, had taken on a life of its own. Many of its new fans had a New Age agenda far removed from the composer’s original attempt in the symphony to come to the still-impossible terms of the suffering unleashed by the Gestapo in a place not far from Górecki’s native and beloved home—Auschwitz.

But Friday night, Górecki took back his symphony, making a highly unlikely appearance to conduct it with the USC Symphony and soprano Elizabeth Hynes at USC’s Bovard Auditorium as the high point of the School of Music’s five-day Górecki Autumn festival. Unlikely is an understatement. No one was sure if the temperamental composer, who was said to be trying to worm out of the performance up until the last minute, would really show.

After a suspenseful late start to the concert, there he was, the 63-year-old composer limping on stage (a hip injury in childhood received improper medical attention) and looking slightly impish. He conducted without baton and without guile. An open right palm gently marked the meter until he approached climaxes. But then it was as if he roared. His whole body would tense up to the breaking point. With shaking fists, he exhorted the players to dig deeper into the sound of their instruments than they ever had before, but he seemed also to entreat God with the same gesture. The tempos were unprecedented; Górecki added a full 11 minutes to the suggested timing of 54 minutes printed in the score. And the performance was simply extraordinary, practically unfathomable under the circumstances. Górecki is not a very experienced conductor. He had little more than a single rehearsal. The orchestra, consisting of university students, has been together only the few weeks of the new school year. But Górecki’s personality is like a force of nature, and he achieved an intensity that I have never heard equaled in this music from far more accomplished orchestras.

The Third Symphony is not, of course, universally admired by the music world. Its three movements are each made from limited materials: the incredibly slow build up of naked fugue in the first movement, the incessant rocking of a couple of chords in the third, the almost naïve, folk-inspired melodic lines the soprano sings again and again. The piece moves glacially. Orchestra musicians are often impatient with so few and such predictable notes to play. But Górecki’s performance, with the fabulous cooperation and concentration of the young musicians and the richly emotional if sometimes quavering singing of Hynes, demonstrated that the power of this symphony lies not so much in the sophisticated manipulation of a variety of musical materials—although there is more of that under the surface than often realized— but in the composer’s ability to make a single sound compelling. In a lecture Thursday night, Adrian Thomas, author of a monograph on Górecki, demonstrated how the rocking chords of the third movement come straight from a Chopin mazurka. In the symphony, and especially on Friday, those chords, amplified throughout the orchestra, became cosmic.

There are no cheap sentiments in Górecki. The texts come from Gestapo prison graffiti, Polish folk song and 15th century Marian lamentation. The amplification of the simple into the monumental through repetition serves here as perhaps the only way to comprehend the Holocaust, the amplification of individual loss into mass destruction. And beauty, wondrous beauty, this symphony tells us, has to be found in the smallest crack in the wall in order to transcend terrible suffering.

At the end of the performance, Górecki, as irresistibly impetuous as ever, excitedly clawed the cellophane of a bouquet handed him so that he could share the flowers with the orchestra. It was one more gesture of triumph, and triumph this concert was for USC and its Polish Music Reference Center, which lured the composer out into public in a way no one else could have. Let’s pray that the university handles this important resource more responsibly that it has the Schoenberg Institute, since the invaluable cultural reference material is now in crate on its way to a new home in Vienna.


[1]. This article was printed in the Los Angeles Times, 6 October 1997. [Back]