Beth Gibbons / Krzysztof Penderecki Henryk Górecki: Symphony No. 3 (Symphony of Sorrowful Songs)

[Domino; 2019]

Rating: 3.5/5

Styles: just three simple songs
Others: no more, no less

Henryk Górecki’s Symphony No. 3, known by the subtitle of The Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, is at once a fetishistic commodity, a masterpiece, and merely a thing, a sound, a lightness, and a light. With its 1992 recording on Elektra Nonesuch by David Zinman conducting the London Sinfonietta and Dawn Upshaw soloing, the symphony attained an almost mythical status, becoming, by some metrics, the best-selling classical record of all time. According to this myth and its dawning within the unspeakable beauty of these sorrowful songs, Górecki, whose mystical voice is capable of giving expression to the Holocaust after which not even poetry could have been written, lives near Auschwitz and in a style of holy minimalism voices suffering itself.

With unspeakable beauty, the composer voices, according to this myth, the unspeakable in unspeakable horror and suffering, witnesses what can’t be witnessed there where the witness vanishes beneath their pain. The symphony’s lack of lyricism — in favor of the pure, sonorous insistence of a voice wavering in a void and the unraveling of a single motif until it becomes overcome with its clarity — voices a silence that is precisely that silent emptiness from where any voice arises.

In a word, the symphony is emptiness itself, laid bare. As a musical piece, it has no interiority, and, bereft of depth and profundity, lacking even sentimentality, it proclaims, like its libretti, nothing but loss, including its own. There’s no inner meaning, no moral narrative, no didactic form that might be gleaned. Rather, there’s a sonority that, in repeating itself, disrobes itself, revealing the nothingness from which a voice might sing its sorrow. Yet, when the vacuity at the source of the symphony is not heard, when it becomes a sheen of something more, an intimation of more meaning than tongue could tell, then such emptiness attracts any meaning that might gather to its light, no longer visible beneath so many wings.

The unique tone of this new recording — with Krzysztof Penderecki conducting the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra and Beth Gibbons, the ghostly voice of Portishead’s angst, soloing — is due to the fact that it returns the work by insisting on its illusory nature, to that which it always was merely a thing, a bareness, a scar. In so doing, this recording renders music back into its essence, that language that, instead of communicating meanings, is, as Adorno has it, the human attempt, doomed as ever, to name the Name, which has been dispersed.

Because, almost repeating Adorno’s well-worn dictum about poetry and the Holocaust, when Górecki was offered a commission by the Polish government to compose a work for the unveiling of a memorial cenotaph at Auschwitz-Birkenau, the composer in an interview with Tadeusz Marek was cited for having posed “the question whether the problem of Auschwitz embraces more than the subject of Auschwitz, and whether indeed it is a problem that music can fully express.” This work, the working title for which was “Barbaric Mass,” was abandoned, and even though it clamored for realization, Górecki himself suggested Penderecki as a replacement, who quickly composed Dies irae, which was performed April 1967 for the international ceremony.

It is quite fitting, then, that the composer whose atonal astringencies and strident clusters of pain found their expression of horror in such works as Threnody for the victims of Hiroshima, and the Dies oratorium might be the one who returns this all too holy work to its emptiness. Because, before any witness to pain and any question of the witness, whether a stone can return the Gorgon’s gaze, there is the immediacy of pain. Of loss and losing, there is a scene of pain where a vanishing might suddenly appear or a vanishing might be heard; it is a matter of hearing, of touching or being touched by what vanishes and, vanishing, what voices only its vanishing. As Jean-Luc Nancy writes, one episode, known under the heading Noli me tangere from the Gospel of John, gives a particularly good example of this sudden appearance within which a vanishing is played out.

It is not a parable spoken by Jesus; it is a scene from the general parable that his life and his mission make up. In this scene he speaks, he makes an appeal, and he leaves. He speaks in order to say that he is there and that he is leaving immediately. He speaks in order to say to the other that he is not where he is believed to be; he is already elsewhere, while nonetheless being present: here, but not right here. It is up to the other to understand. It is up to the other to see and to hear.

Each word of each text, each syllable and song that is enunciated in tender annunciation in Górecki’s Third Symphony, touches on this hearing that can’t touch and so is touched by a maternal love for a love that coincides with a maternal loss, a pain that is only disappearance.

One of the composer’s first works, Three Songs, op. 3 (1956), dedicated “in memory of my dear mother,” begins with a song titled “Do matki (To Mother).” Transposing a poem by the Polish poet Słowacki, the song sings of a mother passing from darkness into light, turning back for an instant to see, or to see if she can see, her son. The second song, based on a poem by the same poet, sings of children following the funeral bier of their mother. The third sings of the acceptance of death; in it, a bird flies away from its perch on a small branch that in its wake trembles with the pleasure of having been visited.

Another piece titled Do Matki (known also by the Latin name “Ad matrem”), op. 29 (1971), and dedicated to his mother’s memory, also evokes this lingering touch of departure, where arising out of the brash violence of brass, timpani, and the insistence of a choral calling “Mater mea,” a soprano solo is released, intoning in a longing lament “Mater mea, lacrimosa dolorosa” with the restraint, for instance, of branches after a wind has passed through or the shiver one sustains after a last exit through a doorway.

The Third Symphony, if it means anything at all, gathers its meaning from this sense of being touched by departure in the scene of the maternal’s doleful requiem. Like in Fra Angelico’s painting of the Noli me tangere that depicts such hands that cannot grasp that for which they yearn, there is only emptiness. Yet, in that emptiness, there where Christ’s stigmata seem to bleed from wound into the red flower heads scattered in the distance of separation, such distance becomes the only closeness, departure the only arrival, and blood flows in flowers shared. The text for the first movement, a 15th-century “Holy Cross Lament,” a kind of Stabat mater that touches on this touch, reads simply:

My son, my chosen and beloved,
Share your wounds with your mother
And because, dear son, I have always carried you in my heart
And always served you faithfully,
Speak to your mother, to make her happy,
Although you are already leaving me, my cherished hope.

In Penderecki’s hands and on Beth Gibbons’s lips, there is a sense of unsentimental urgency to reach the sharing of wounds that occurs in a distance that can be enunciated only in leaving and heard only after the sounds themselves have left. The fugal succession of the single orchestral motif that turns in on itself, impelled into a thick insistence that neither rises nor falls but grows only more immanent to itself until it can do nothing but shatter into a silence, which, marked by the resounding clarity of a single piano note, clears a trembling stillness from where Gibbon’s fragile but unyielding voice can express the only ever lost and wounded sharing of a loss.

The second text Górecki found is in a book on the “Palace,” a Gestapo prison in the southern Polish town Zakopane, in which, among the names and dates scrawled onto the prison walls, the composer observed a simple plea from an 18-year-old girl: “Mother, don’t cry. Most chaste Queen of Heaven, support me always. Ave Maria.” A simple gesture of lightness and yearning that shimmers through an orchestral swell here succumbs to a deep brooding from where a voice, as any lightness, can rise weightlessly, note by note over wavering strings, to find again the high brightness that it never left, for it was the source of its lightness, its slightness, its grace. Although the text of this song is the source of the work’s reputation as a Holocaust memorial, the young girl according to Górecki survived both her imprisonment and the war, and to abstract her Catholic prayer to a larger testament would be almost perverse in a common tendency to see Jewish pain through the light of Christian salvation.

The third text, a folk song from southern Poland, voices a mother imploring for her son’s return from war, though neither date, nor death, nor enemy are identified. Out of a wavering consternation in the orchestra, the mother’s plea simply rises and falls, consoled by strings that cushion her voice as if with the hands of so many ghosts uplifting her to a clarity in which the voice merges as with a light, resounding an A-major triad that vanishes with repetition into its echoing shroud.

Although death hovers around this symphony as its shadow, the promise of resurrection is so near to the work’s pain that it lends it its particular lightness, its ambivalence between sublimity and suffering. The pain in this work is the ambivalence of being touched by that which one nevertheless can’t touch, of being touched by this nevertheless. Likewise, its performance: The beauty in Penderecki and Gibbons’s expression, after all excess has been excised, finds its tenderness in the fragility of matter burdened by salvation’s imposition. Gibbons’s voice, urging contralto into soprano, shudders in a coarse fragility, where the ornament of opera-hall vibrato collapses into the weakness of voicing more pain than can be voiced. The strings loom faster than the famous recordings insist on a grit no resin can smooth and deny the sheer lightness that moves them, sounding of the heft and humility of merely matter.

Yet, if this work means anything at all — caught as it is between the ultimate meaning of messianic witness and just these three simple songs, nothing more, nothing less, that empty themselves even of emptiness — captures an indeterminacy in the maternal herself. Kristeva writes in her essay “Stabat Mater” that the maternal “means the ambivalent principle that derives on the one hand from the species and on the other hand from a catastrophe of identity which plunges the proper Name into that ‘unnameable’ that somehow involves our imaginary representations of femininity, non-language, or the body.” But after all pretense of the unnameable excess of meaning has vanished into an unsentimental bareness of matter and fragility, what’s left? Can such a spectacle be reduced into mere matter with no excess of signification just by insisting on its illusory nature? Can a rose disrobe its petal-form?

Even if what remains is not nothing, it’s a joy to be undone. Nothingless, and with emptiness pronounced, the light, extinguished, still somehow glistens in the dust of mothwing offal plunging in the night

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