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Górecki: Symphony No 3 / Donald Runnicles, Atlanta Symphony Orchestra

Release Date: 03/24/2009 
Label:  Telarc   Catalog #: 80699   Spars Code: n/a 
Composer:  Henryk Mikolaj Górecki
Performer:  Christine Brewer
Conductor:  Donald Runnicles
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Atlanta Symphony Orchestra
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

GÓRECKI Symphony No. 3, “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs” Donald Runnicles, cond; Christine Brewer (sop); Atlanta SO TELARC 80699 (48:56 Text and Translation)

I must confess that I found the writing of this review painful. The older I get, the more difficult it becomes for me to objectify music. I feel it more and more deeply than hitherto. In the case of Górecki’s Third Symphony, a poignant setting of three texts relating, both directly Read more and metaphorically, to the Holocaust, I found its almost primordial eloquence unbearable when I first encountered it over a decade and a half ago. But this disc found its way into my mailbox and made it imperative that I revisit this score—an almost Zen-like moment of serene contemplation dealing with a most un-Zen-like moment in our all too recent history

There are telling parallels between the careers of Arvo Pärt and Henryk Górecki, though the two composers would most likely disavow any sort of hindsight parallelism They were born fairly close together both chronologically (Górecki in 1933, Pärt in 1935), and geographically (Górecki in Poland, Pärt in Estonia—two countries that would be occupied by the Soviet Union during both composer’s formative years). Each became an avant-gardist early on, and each, in the 1970s, disavowed his cutting-edge language and opted for a more fundamentally simple (some would say, damningly retrograde) style. Pärt, after immersing himself in European Medieval music and Renaissance polyphony, devised his tintinnabulation language as made manifest in such works as Tabula rasa of 1977; Górecki evolved in the direction of a simple tonalism characterized by an oddly severe use of consonance, an almost unbearably slow harmonic rhythm, and the development of short melodic kernels from which he built vast and clearly defined musical arches, here realized most eloquently in the 20-minute-plus first movement of his “Symphony of Sorrows.” Both composers are profoundly religious.

To his credit, Górecki, like Pärt, steadfastly refuses be a celebrity. He requires distance from the world at large in order to follow only his own inner dictates, come what may or what may not. His breakthrough work was his Symphony No. 3 of 1976. In 1992, it was recorded by Dawn Upshaw and the London Sinfonietta under the always forward-looking David Zinman (Nonesuch 79282). That was a superb effort, as close to being as definitive as is possible (a dangerous concept for a critic of any sort to embrace). It also became a mega best seller in the classical realm and, along the way, catapulted its highly private composer from anonymity to world fame. Some years later, a fine performance came to my attention on the Royal Philharmonic’s own label (release number 2826), sung by Susan Gritton and conducted by Yuri Simonov, which I favorably reviewed in Fanfare 22:6.

In revisiting that Upshaw/Zinman performance, the first thing I was struck by was how much that the recording showed its age. Upper trebles are a bit screechy, especially during louder passages, instrumental lines are not as well defined as in the two newer recordings, and moments of timbral change, as about halfway through the first movement (just before the soprano’s first entrance), when the austerely slow harmonic flow stops, leaving only a single, sustained, chord—a moment of humanistic warmth mandating a color change—that change is marginally registered in the Zinman performance, but better captured in the Simonov effort, and far better captured in Runnicles’ recording.

Given the total timings, both Zinman and Simonov would seem, tempo wise, amazingly consistent (Zinman, 53:43; Simonov, 53:20). This is a bit deceiving. Simonov takes just under 28 minutes to traverse the monumental first movement; Zinman weighs in at 26:30. Normally, this would not be significant, but given Górecki’s slow harmonic rhythm, that extra minute and a half makes the movement seem incredibly more vast. Both conductors take precisely 9:22 in the center movement. The greatest contrast is to be found in the final movement, where Zinman weighs in at 17:05 and Simonov at a fleet 15:58. It is illusory, but Simonov’s performance comes across as the slowest of the three.

Now we turn to this effort by soprano Christine Brewer and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra under Donald Runnicles. Runnicles traverses the entire score in a mere 49:10, and in doing so, more clearly defines its underlying structure. His control of the orchestra is absolute—marked by rapt concentration that effortlessly communicates the music’s otherworldly rapture. And Telarc’s sound, in its airiness, dynamic range, and timbral color, roundly outclasses the competition. Of the sopranos, Dawn Upshaw comes across as the most girlish of the three. This bears dividends in the second movement, whose text had been scrawled, in September of 1944, on the wall of a Gestapo jail cell in the town of Zakopane by an 18-year-old Polish girl believed to have been a partisan. Her text is a prayer to her mother, who is, at its very end, conflated with the Blessed Virgin Mary. The voices of both Susan Gritton and Christine Brewer are darker hewed, which, at other moments in the score, also provide dividends.

And now for the Consumer Union aspect of Fanfare . Both the Zinman and the Runnicles recording contain only the Symphony. That is to say, they are both short CDs. The Simonov recording, however, includes a filler—Górecki’s delightful Three Pieces in Old Style.

My bottom line is that if you don’t know this Symphony, then this Runnicles recording is the way to go. If you are in possession of either of the other recordings, you also need this newest one on the grounds that no conductor, in recorded history, has ever gotten it all on any score, but Runnicles comes perilously close.

This is my first hearing of Donald Runnicles’ work, and I am mightily impressed.

FANFARE: William Zagorski
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Works on This Recording

Symphony no 3, Op. 36 "Symphony of Sorrowful Songs" by Henryk Mikolaj Górecki
Performer:  Christine Brewer (Soprano)
Conductor:  Donald Runnicles
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Atlanta Symphony Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1976; Poland 
Length: 49 Minutes 8 Secs. 

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