NATIONAL Capital Orchestra opened its most recent concert with a movement from Bed?ich Smetana’s 1875 symphonic poems “Má Vlast” (My Homeland), and a suite taken from Christopher Gordon’s “Ceremonial Games”, written for the Melbourne Commonwealth Games in 2006.
These works, both in terms of compositional calibre and the quality of playing, were so utterly eclipsed by Henryk Górecki’s masterful Third Symphony, in the second half, that one questions the decision to program them at all.
Górecki’s 1976 Symphony No. 3, subtitled “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs” (Symfonia pie?ni ?a?osnych), is one of the great monoliths of 20th century music – a parallel, in some ways, to Picasso’s “Guernica” or T. S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland”.
Centred on three Polish texts, all on themes of mothers separated from their children during conflict, Górecki’s elegiac Symphony adopted simple church modes. Despite its minimal resources, Górecki’s work is not populist or self-indulgent.
In a cultural atmosphere of high intellectualism, dominated by complexity and integral serialism, Górecki premiered three Symphonic movements, all marked Lento, culminating in twenty-one repetitions of an A-major chord.
Despite its initial frosty reception, Górecki’s Symphony No. 3 has done more than any other orchestral work to stimulate interest in modern art music. And its appeal has always been much broader than the concert-going public. In a 1995 NPR interview, the composer read aloud a letter sent by a 14-year-old burn victim, telling him that the only thing that had kept her alive was his music.
Górecki’s Symphony is a very ambitious work to perform, especially for a community orchestra, and many Australian professional orchestras would never attempt a work like this. Leonard Weiss must be commended for his boldness and commitment to contemporary repertoire.
Symphony No. 3 opens, “Lento—Sostenuto tranquillo ma cantabile”, with a 15th-century Polish lament by the virgin Mary grieving for her son. It begins almost impossibly, with pianissimo double basses, and canonic entries spread over four octaves.
Played well, this is one of the most beautiful musical passages of the 20th century. It is also very difficult to keep in tune. Regrettably, the orchestra struggled with intonation from the first few minutes, right up to the viola entries. This disappointing beginning was completely forgotten as Louise Page sang her first note. The audience collectively held its breath in her perfectly controlled phrases. The close balance between forces in this work is difficult to manage, but Weiss held the orchestra in check as Page’s bel canto rose to the symphony’s upper reaches.
To the “Lento e largo—Tranquillissimo” second movement, a setting of an 18-year-old’s message to her mother, scrawled on the wall of a Gestapo prison cell, Page brought prayerful intensity. Over rising and falling string, her intonation was always perfect.
The emotional impact of this movement is difficult to describe. Górecki’s music has taken its character from the text, which said:
“In prison, the whole wall was covered with inscriptions screaming out loud: ‘I’m innocent’, ‘Murderers’, ‘Executioners’, ‘Free me’, ‘You have to save me’—it was all so loud, so banal. Adults were writing this, while here it is an eighteen-year-old girl, almost a child. And she is so different. She does not despair, does not cry, does not scream for revenge. She does not think about herself; whether she deserves her fate or not. Instead, she only thinks about her mother: because it is her mother who will experience true despair.”
The concluding “Lento—Cantabile-semplice”, is the haunting lament of a mother searching for her dead son in the 1920s Silesian uprisings. Weiss’s orchestral contribution was un-indulgent and refined. Page’s treatment of melody was dignified without ever being austere. Her voice was richly toned and beautifully controlled throughout.
For a few years Górecki was one of the most talked-about composers of the avant-garde, but he never again managed to capture the public imagination as he had with this symphony. I have waited a long time to hear this work in concert and it brings me immense joy to hear a local orchestra performing it.