DVD & Blu-ray Reviews

HENRYK GÓRECKI: The Symphony of Sorrowful Songs

A minimalist symphony, one of sorrowful songs about sorrowful years and events, but not a symphony about a war.

Published on July 31, 2008

HENRYK GÓRECKI: The Symphony of Sorrowful Songs

HENRYK GÓRECKI: The Symphony of Sorrowful Songs

Performers: Dawn Upshaw (soprano)/ The London Sinfonietta/ David Zinman
Film Director: Tony Palmer
Studio: Voiceprint – TPDVD102 [Distr. by Naxos]
Video: 16:9 color & B&W
Audio: Dolby Digital Stereo
Region code: all regions
Subtitles: English – French – Italian – German – Spanish
Booklet: English 4 pages
Length: 53 minutes
Performance: *****    Sound: *****

Henryk Górecki was born in 1933 in Katowice, Poland about 20 minutes away from the concentration camp of Auschwitz. This film is based on his Third Symphony, The Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, which documents the composer’s experiences during and after WW II. In the film’s director own words: “My film is a personal view of a great Symphony which is itself, again in my view, a towering monument to all that we have done and are continuing to do in the name of humanity”, indeed it is. Górecki’s youth was consumed in the midst and the subsequent aftermath of that miserable human debacle. That Górecki was able to create music is nothing but a miracle to human perseverance. This symphony was written in 1976 and premiered in 1977 in France, while the film was created by Tony Palmer and premiered also in France in 1993.

I remember well 1992 – that was the year whence I heard on the radio a little voice singing words I could not understand to music I had never heard before. The voice was that of Dawn Upshaw (sop.) and the original Elektra Nonesuch CD went on to sell in the millions – an unheard-of event. However, a big problem with that recording was its poor quality, I could never fully hear what was recorded until now with this DVD. I can finally hear the voice (that little beautiful voice) and the exquisite music in its full power, and what a recording it was, and still is. This is a minimalist symphony, one of sorrowful songs about sorrowful years and events but not a symphony about a war.

Górecki relates to us in the occasional commentary and head shots the origin of his symphony, the realities of the holocaust and the barbarities of a country (his Poland) occupied by force during and after the war. This symphony suddenly becomes a calligraphic pictorial and its surface, one might say, is its depth. If indeed a saintly soul is a saintly voice, then form and music are the representations of one’s soul and the voice of one’s innermost feelings – Górecki’s feelings. The unrelenting  inventiveness of the score, culminating in the final prayer with its musical variations, is not a matter of religious illustration but the essence of what the music and the film are all about. In the end music becomes the force of nature and the constructive essence of life and it humbles us to our knees. We are the ones who begot this wretched world and we must ask for forgiveness. How could we forget those gut- wrenching images of the dead in the death camps of Poland, hunger in Africa, the massacres of Bosnia, or the Middle East?

This is a monumental historical document about many events which are still with us. It does not seem the world has changed much since then; the geography might have changed but people has not, and that’s Górecki’s ultimate message. In his own words: “There is so much evil around us…we have to try and look for something positive…” and Górecki’s particular cultural instrument is his music. One that allows him and us to come to terms with such evils. This is a tragic symphony and a tragic film, one that expresses a great sorrow; the great sorrow of one musician’s life. The film’s message goes far beyond the artistry of the music, its performance, the sound and the images. This movie should be compulsory viewing as a reminder of what was and what it will be if we do not mend our ways. The great question this film poses is: who is going to fix this wretched world?

— John Nemaric


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