The music business loves the tried and the true; if one song’s a hit, let’s have another just like it! Once in a while, though, a serious work catches the public’s fancy, somehow striking a deeper chord and reminding us of the power music has to touch us and move us deeply.
Such is the case with Henryk Gorecki’s Symphony No. 3. Subtitled the “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs,” it was surprise hit when recorded by David Zinman and the London Sinfonietta in 1992, with soprano Dawn Upshaw. It’s certainly not a typical chart-topper. There’s nothing bright and bouncy here, no catchy choruses or heavy beats. It’s a work of deep spirituality, slow and dense, almost unbearably sad, yet inexpressibly beautiful.
Gorecki has stated that the work is not ‘about’ the Holocaust, but the horrors of one of humanity’s greatest crimes are undeniably a presence. It’s based on a series of texts, including words scrawled upon the walls of her prison cell by an eighteen-year old girl imprisoned by The Gestapo. Other inspirations come from a 15th century Lamentation and Polish folksong, but the central theme – a mother’s grief over the loss of her child – remains a constant throughout.
Cast in three movements, the work unfolds slowly, gradually emerging from silence with a sense of ominous inevitability. The words are sung in Polish, but the language is irrelevant – the sorrow and grief are unmistakable, rising in anguish, falling in resignation. Impeccably voiced here by soprano Christine Brewer, the suffering is almost unendurable – and yet the very purity, the sublime beauty of the human voice holds out hope, the possibility of benediction. It’s nothing less than the sound of the human spirit, infinitely alone, as fragile as a flickering flame yet ultimately indomitable.
Donald Runnicles leads the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra with a sure touch, deftly balancing the almost ponderous lower registers against strings of shimmering luminosity, and Brewer delivers a stunning performance.
Music has been called the ‘universal language,’ one that connects us in ways words simply cannot express. Gorecki’s Third Symphony is a work of profound and redemptive beauty. It’s not an easy listen, and this is definitely not a disc to perk up a party. But as a powerful and profound meditation on the human capacity for suffering and hope, it is an absolute and unqualified masterpiece.