GORECKI: Symphony No. 3, Op. 36 “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs” – Christine Brewer, soprano/ Atlanta Symphony Orchestra/ Donald Runnicles, conductor – Telarc 80699, 49:08 ****:
Gorecki’s Third is a modern day marvel; it took 15 years and an unsuspecting performance and subsequent recording by David Zinman and Dawn Upshaw in what became one of the greatest classical music sales bonanzas of all time—it sold over 700,000 copies worldwide in two years, and well over one million to date. And this for a piece composed in 1976, and widely rejected by critics and public alike for many years. There have been all sorts of theories as to why this work caught on like it did, from being a “child of the times” to striking some sort of chord with the emerging compact disc market. But these suggestions ultimately fall flat, as the piece is unremittingly slow and rather dour in its expression. The fact of its popularity is relatively simple: this is a powerful and exquisitely emotionally potent masterpiece whose ecstatic and visionary vocal lines resonate with all that most of the public seeks for in an integrated and involving piece of music. It sells because it is wonderful, and the public got it right.
Orchestrally it is slightly odd; the work is scored for solo soprano, four flutes (two players doubling on piccolos), four clarinets in B-flat, two bassoons, two contrabassoons, four horns in F, four trombones, harp, piano and strings. Neither oboes nor English horns figure into this score, making for a very flat and latex-like timbre. The “Sorrowful Songs” are based on a late-15th century lament of Mary from the Lysagora Songs collection of the Holy Cross Monastery in the Świętokrzyskie Mountains (movement 1), a prayer to the Virgin Mary (movement 2), and lastly an Opole folk song where a mother grieves for her supposedly murdered and missing son (movement 3). But amidst all of this churning melodrama flows music of such uplifting and spiritually enlightening provenance that one can hardly remain dejected for long, for Gorecki’s sense of grief is overcome only by his sense of hopefulness, a willingness to exploit sorrow to such an extent that overwhelming grief finds nowhere to rest its head, and a sort of catharsis takes place in the ears of the listener. Such universalism in feeling was bound to attract people from all walks of life, but no one realized that it would reach into all corners of the earth, making this perhaps the most popular contemporary classical work every penned.
We have ten recordings currently available to general audiences everywhere. The original Polish recording seems not commonly available at the moment, though I have found some copies from smaller outlets. The Naxos recording with Antoni Wit has gotten good reviews, as has the Kazimierz Kord reading on Universal. To tell the truth, I cannot really recall offhand a bad review of this symphony; how things have changed since the 1980s! I can also state unequivocally that no version has the over-the-top vocal ecstasies that Dawn Upshaw provided on the Zinman recording that started the phenomenon. It is her singing that is responsible, in my opinion, for the success of that recording. The London Sinfonietta is a fine group, but they are outclassed in many other recordings, including this one by Runnicles and the Atlanta Symphony.
Christine Brewer is approaching the pinnacle of her career, and rightly so. Her singing is well-controlled, perfectly judged, and one never senses that anything is out of control. This is precisely why she fails to achieve the unbridled passion of Upshaw, whose typically on-the-edge raptures so inspire people, as if a walk on the wild side is part and parcel of being able to sell this music. Yet Brewer has her moments, and in many ways has a more beautiful instrument that Upshaw. One thing is for certain—the ASO is far and away the finest orchestra to have recorded this music, and Runnicles’s steady conception of the work gives far reach to the orchestra’s strings to make a sustained and beauteous sound. I could not part with the Zinman, but may feel that way about this one also with repeated hearings. Then again, maybe not—Upshaw is a tough act to follow, and her version has become the de facto standard for this piece.
The sound here is stunning indeed, though if any composition cried out for Super Audio it is this one. But according to the Telarc website, this is the only format forthcoming, which is a bloody shame. I hope the company, so long at the forefront of audio advances, refuses the devilish temptation to be lured into the MP3 market instead of continuing their surround releases. We shall see. But it seems that some of the once-smaller labels with strong spines are now succumbing to weaker wills. Recommended, though 49 minutes adds insult to no-surround sound injury.
— Steven Ritter