Górecki Beatus Vir DUX

Henryk Górecki (1933-2010)
Beatus vir, psalm for baritone, mixed choir and orchestra Op. 38 (1979)
Concerto-Cantata for flute and orchestra Op. 65 (1992)
Canticum gradum for orchestra Op. 27 (1969)
Szymon Mechliński (baritone)
Łukasz Długosz (flute and alto flute)
Silesian Philharmonic Choir and Symphony Orchestra/Mirosław Jacek Blaszczyk (Beatus Vir), Yaroslav Shemet (other works)
rec. 2020, Henryk Mikolaj Górecki Silesian Philharmonic, Katowice, Poland
No text or translation included.
DUX 1737 [71]

Górecki sprang to international fame when the 1992 recording by Dawn Upshaw and the London Sinfonietta under David Atherton of his third symphony, Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, itself a work of some fifteen years earlier, turned out to be a huge bestseller, far beyond the expectations for a recent twentieth century symphony. It remains his best-known work. But Górecki was more than a one work composer, as the works included here clearly demonstrate.

This disc has been lovingly prepared and presented, with the help of a government grant, so it is perhaps not inappropriate that it should begin with a spoken introduction to Górecki’s work. However, this is given in Polish, a language I do not know, and no translation is provided, so I skipped the first track.

Beatus vir, a choral work for concert not liturgical use, has an interesting history. It was commissioned in 1978 by Karol Wojtyła, then Metropolitan Bishop of Krakow, to commemorate the 900th anniversary of the murder of the Krakow Bishop Stanislaus in 1079. Stanislaus was later canonised. He was regarded as a martyr for his opposition to the rule of the king; contemporary parallels were obvious. Between the commission and the first performance in 1979 Wojtyła was elevated to the papacy as Pope John Paul II, but he returned to Poland for the premiere. The text was taken from the psalms, not one psalm but a composite drawn from verses from several (143:1,6-10; 31:16; 88:2; 67:7; 34:9; numbering as in the Vulgate; for most English translations add one to each psalm number). The work was seen by the Communist authorities as subversive, and they did their best to exclude Górecki from musical life.

It is written on a large-scale, with parts for a solo baritone, a large choir and a very large orchestra, featuring four each of the wind and brass instruments – it is the only work I know which requires four deep tubas. It falls into several sections, and the musical idiom includes monumental chords, some chromatic writing which recalls Szymanowski and in particular his Stabat Mater, Polish folk song and plainsong chants. It is a sombre, severe and impressive work.

The Concerto-Cantata, curious title, is a flute concerto in four movements. It opens with a long unaccompanied lyrical passage for the soloist, who here has to use an alto flute, that instrument with a fascinating timbre first popularized by Stravinsky in The Rite of Spring and Ravel in Daphnis and Chloe. In the Arioso second movement the orchestra joins in and the mood changes from lyrical to dramatic. The third movement is fast and quirky while the finale returns us to slower music of a meditative character. This work successfully shows both sides of Górecki’s musical character, with the slow, spiritual side well contrasted with a fast, secular one.

Canticum gradum is much the earliest work here. I was startled when it began, because the opening sounded so much like early Messiaen. In fact, Górecki studied for a time with Messiaen in Paris. The work moves largely in rich, slow-moving chords but does develop a distinct personality and is not a work of pastiche. It lingers in the mind.

The performances here are all clearly dedicated and assured. The recording is good and the sleevenote helpful, although no translations are provided. There have been other recordings of all the works here but not in this combination. Those who would like to explore Górecki beyond the third symphony should consider this.

Stephen Barber

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