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From Portishead to Poland

Back in Los Angeles in 1997, the veteran Polish composer Henryk Górecki was leading a rehearsal with the USC Symphony Orchestra of his Symphony of Sorrowful Songs. Amazingly, this rehearsal was recorded in full, and Górecki’s comments to the performers were later transcribed in the Polish Music Journal. As he tried to evoke the right sound from the university performers in the first movement (or song) of the three, Górecki apparently said:

“How should I explain it to you? Perhaps you should think about an elevator: you leave behind the basement of everyday life, filled with noises, distractions and anxieties, and you take the elevator up to the tenth floor, or even into the sky of timelessness. When you are in this music, time slows down, it is as if you were in heaven, it is like eternity. Do you understand what I want to achieve there? Total calm. . . Let us play it again.”

This sort of insight into a composer’s mind never ceases to fascinate me. And especially as an orchestral player, there’s something about the power of words like these in a rehearsal which can get an orchestra breathing together and playing as one.

This would certainly be necessary in this first movement, which sees all the string parts enter one after another slowly in canon, each continuing the same phrase at a different pitch. It’s a gradual build-up all the way up from double basses, who are split into two parts, to the first violins. The result is an overwhelming string sound playing continuously at all pitches of the register. The basses always keep moving onwards and so harmonically it also cannot settle. The melody itself is not discordant but the very nature of the canon causes each string part to overlap with all the others and so these melodies then blend.

It is difficult to explain the power of this string sound. Strings don’t need to pause for breath, and Górecki wants to exploit this constant sound, where maybe the human ear is looking for a pause at the end of a phrase.

Finally, we reach the end of the canon, which has built up and back down again, as all unite on a single note. Then we first hear Beth Gibbons.

She rises above the bed of strings and piano with a lament of the Virgin Mary from a Polish folk song from the 15thcentury. And vocally it becomes immediately clear what a special partnership this symphony is. Gibbons’ voice in this lament is full of emotion, as she ascends to the highest notes with an ease that belies the difficulties of such a challenging piece.

The highlight though is yet to come in the second movement: Lento e largo – Tranquillisimo. This time it is a shining string sound in an oscillating chord pattern which is given shape by the piano. The chords seem to pulse beneath Gibbons as she enters, swelling and fading away on each beat. The music is mesmerising and chant-like. For me the more I listen, the pulsing chords start to match my breathing, my heartbeat.

There’s a remarkable quality to Gibbons’ voice for these Sorrowful Songs. If you’ve heard no other Gorecki, you’ll have heard excerpts of this movement – it’s frequently used in soundtracks and adverts. When something becomes that ubiquitous, it often seems to lose its power. I’ve certainly heard several versions of this sung by powerful (and extremely well-known) classical sopranos who overwhelm the simplicity of the music and blast out the melody as if on an opera stage.

Gibbons gives something else though. Her voice here is tender and soft. And as she reaches up to the higher notes that softness continues.

The repeat of the words is beautiful when she returns to “Mamo, nie placz…”. Now on top of the gentleness there is a real sense of love in the sound – you can almost hear a smile.

At the final line, “Hail Mary, you are full of grace”, we can imagine the writer of these lines praying directly to the Virgin Mary. Gibbons brings this line, all uttered on one continuous note like a chant, an overwhelming poignancy.

The words themselves have an extraordinary source: they were found inscribed on the wall of a cell in a Gestapo prison in Zakopane, Poland, and below is the signature of Helena Wanda Blazusiakówna, with the words "18 years old, imprisoned since 26 September 1944."

Mamo, nie płacz, nie. Niebios Przeczysta Królowo, Ty zawsze wspieraj mnie. Zdrować Mario, Łaskiś Pełna.

Mother, do not cry, no.

The purest Queen of Heaven,

You always support me.

Hail Mary, you are full of grace.

The last movement takes its words & melody from a song of the Opole region in south west Poland, probably dating from the Silesian Uprisings of 1919-21.

The orchestral accompaniment here is simple to begin with, letting the words of the mother who has lost her son, take priority. I can’t profess to speak to Gibbons’ Polish pronunciation, only to say she brings to it a confidence and consistency which is impressive. It is clear, however, that Gibbons has put in a lot of work to understand these texts and their emotional weight. At the same time there is also a simplicity in her sound, and an emotionality, which I’m sure fans of Portishead will recognise. Górecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs really does gain something in performance with Gibbons.

We reach the final verses and the orchestra signify a resolution in the chord. As the soprano enters, we learn why:

Ej, cwierkejcie mu tam, wy ptosecki boze, kiedy mamulicka znalezc go nie moze. A ty, boze kwiecie, kwitnijze w okolo, niech sie synockowi choc lezy wesolo

Oh, sing for him God's little song-birds Since his mother Cannot find him And you, God's little flowers May you blossom all around So that my son May sleep happily

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