Royal Albert Hall
4 September 2013
A plug for this excellent genuinely Polish recording (unlike the more famous interpretation with Dawn Upshaw).
Three melancholy, mildly sentimental works in an interesting programme.
Gorecki’s third symphony may be almost as popular as Tchaikovsky’s sixth, though I suspect it works better for home listening than in a concert hall, whereas the opposite is true for the sixth.
The world of intense, ritualistic solemnity in the Symphony of Sorrowful Songs is far removed from the manic depressive mood swings in the Pathétique. There is scarcely any drama in the former, while the latter is one of the most dramatic pieces of music in the repertoire, significantly moreso than all but a few dozen operas, in fact.
We might fault the state of hypnosis that Gorecki induces in his audience in order to maximise the impact of his first, and key, song, a pieta prayer spoken by Mary over her dying son, Jesus. But that would be to dismiss the entire style of the work. I think a greater problem is the basic sentimentality of each of the song settings, relating to women and loss.
I don’t complain of the effects used to make us sympathise with the horrors faced by each woman, but rather with the small touches that imply without justification that there may be hope for them, and a world where this can happen. Any attempt at consolation cheapens these desperately sad poems, regardless of whether such touches are necessary musically to prevent monotony.
It’s a bind that the highly religious Gorecki could ignore. Musically, some form of consolation is required, otherwise there would be even less drama than there is. Even for Gorecki, this is unwarranted without a textual reference to God's mysterious justice. But given the overall bleak impression, I don’t find this a devastating problem with the work, which deserves its place in the repertoire.
Tchaikovsky cheapens his music in the opposite way. So desperate to avoid boredom he lurches from one extreme to another. It’s a little like watching a great weeping and wailing, and remaining external to it. As with Gorecki, the sentiment doesn’t seriously mar the work, for the listener is surely fully committed by the great finale.
Conductor Osmo Vänskä produced a magnificent account of the symphony, somehow managing the orchestral balance so that many details could be heard without loss of weight in the strings. It wasn’t a hard-driven account, and was generally measured, but this can produce a shattering effect, and did here.
The makeweight in the programme was Vaughan Williams’ Four Last Songs, bloodlessly orchestrated by Anthony Payne. He couldn’t have been inspired by these slight pieces, which are nonetheless interesting for any fan of the composer (and everyone ought to be a fan).
It is hard to believe these repressed verses about love and death could have been set by the composer who much earlier in his life produced settings of Walt Whitman. Their unassertiveness is a moving response to death’s approach, and if their intimacy precludes close involvement and so makes them sentimental, once again, it seems the composer recognised this in his doubts that they were suitable for public performance.