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Review: BBC Proms - Górecki’s Symphony Of Sorrowful Songs

Posted by Weeping Tudor from Cardiff - Published on 10/09/2013 at 11:42
3 comments » - Tagged as Festivals, History, Music

  • Holocaust Memorial

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Royal Albert Hall, London
Wednesday 4th September 2013 (Prom 71)

I write this review on a delayed train back to Cardiff after someone, it appears has killed themselves on the track near Bristol. This foreboding news made for an eerie time in London and would be heightened by the music I would hear at the Proms that evening.

It’s become a habit of mine to invite people on Couch Surfing to join me for concerts. This time it was a very pretty Spanish lady who had never been to one. I was happy to join her for her first time. It’s always a pleasure. The Royal Albert Hall is well worth visiting even just for a tour. A free Proms Plus Event before the concert, over the road in the Royal College of Music proved help to enhance the Prom experience as well.

Although I would have loved a talk about Górecki’s 3rd Symphony, we instead got a look back at the 2013 Prom season. It certainly has been an immense two months, whether you were there in the hall, listening on the radio or watching on the TV. Many matters were discussed, such as why there were seven Wagner operas preformed and none of Verdi’s for their bicentenaries? Proms Director Roger Wright explained that two of Verdi’s operas were proposed but were poorly cast. He remarked that this "should not leave these four walls". I feel this does explain why there were no Verdi operas done. The press have to inform. He was quite jokey anyway about it.

More practical talk was regarding certain doors being locked with the need for more air conditioning, if there should be surtitles for the operas and if latecomers should be admitted at all. I have been late once or twice for a show and to know you can shortly go in is a great relief. As Wright pointed out, if you can’t put a latecomer in his seat for Das Rheingold (because there is no interval), they would see none of the show! People are late for good reasons. These talks are a great resource and should especially be attended by those who are unsure about what they are going to see on the night.

Out of the three BBC Proms I have been to this year, this was by far the best. It was quite a strange programme, but in the end, worked out very well. If you only ever listen to a few pieces of orchestral music in your lifetime, you have to make one of them Henryk Górecki’s 3rd Symphony. Known as the Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, I defy you to find another piece of music that is as achingly sad and depressing as this (in a good way of course). It is a composition which for the last twenty years has been catapulted out of obscurity and into the hearts and souls of music lovers everywhere, thanks to Paul Gambaccini who aired the Dawn Upshaw recording on Classic FM in the mid 90s.

I recall first hearing this work back in 2007 at Llandaff Cathedral. The fuss given to it made me curious and I wanted to see if it was justified. I had no idea that it would sound like that and move me in such a way, holding back the tears on the bus home. It is a very morbid work and also very Polish sounding. Imagine hearing this with the gigantic statue of Jesus looking over you (and very angrily I should point out). Sunlight streamed onto the stain glass windows. Certainly a concert I will never forget.  

I wrote about how much this work meant to me in my creative writing workshop in uni. The lecturer, who the week before had praised my writing on Olivier Messiaen, was very damming on the way I had spoke of this work. Too clichéd. How do you talk about very sad music? That was over two years ago now and I would like to think that my writing skills have improved a great deal since then.

The symphony features a role for soprano. The singing here is so intensely heart-rending yet delicately layered. She who performs this takes on three very dramatic roles. Out of the three movements (all of which are Lento - very slow) she will sing as the Virgin Mary, begging for her son’s pain on the cross to be transferred to her; then as a young girl incarcerated in a Gestapo jail who has left a message for her mother and finally a Polish mother who has lost her son in the Silesian Uprisings. These are very powerful maternal words and the sacred minimalism of the music pierces your heart in sweet agony. Take the message of the young girl in the jail:

No, Mother, do not weep.
Most Chaste Queen of Heaven,
Support me always.
Hail, Mary, full of grace…

The middle movement with the girl has become the most famous part and has been dubbed the "Hymn of the Holocaust". This is the part that will always get people’s attention and stirs them into a blubbery mess. Most of the work is very quiet. There are few pianissimos (loud, everyone playing at once), which made for a much more intimate experience. In the massed hall the sounds were like whispers of those who have left us. Ruby Hughes has knuckled down and learnt the Polish text properly. It is what every singer must do for this work. She sang the roles with splendour and majesty.

My plus one was moved and was tearing up in the last movement. She told me the words of the mother who had lost her son were just so sad. I agree totally. The entire work is about motherhood and the loss of children. Coming from a man, that’s very noble of the composer. He had said it wasn’t an anti-war work but rather just solemn lament. If you have the time please listen to the second movement in the video above. Please comment on how it made you feel.

I found it weird that this was first on the programme. The second half would consist of Vaughan Williams' Four Last Songs (orchestrated by Anthony Payne, world premier) and Tchaikovsky’s 6th Symphony. I’ve heard very little of these composers recently. Both works were treats in their own regard. Mezzo Jennifer Johnston singing the final songs with very clear English and charmingly folksy. I forgot how great Tchaikovsky’s last symphony is as well.

Nicknamed the "Pathétique" it's miles better than his others symphonic work and has a heck of a clarinet role. It can be very ballsy and very calm and pretty. Was he even a troll of his day having the end of the loud third movement lead straight into the slow movement, making some audience members assume that is the end and commence applauding? It went down a treat and even after a few hearings live, I would certainly go hear it again.

Here’s to a great last night on Saturday and another great season at the 120th Proms, next year!

Rating: 9/10

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Photo Credit: mit_handkuss via Compfight cc

3 CommentsPost a comment

CosmicTigger

Commented 32 months ago - 10th September 2013 - 19:01pm

I listened to this on the radio (having missed much of the Gorecki, alas) and agree that the programming was a bit odd. If anything, I found the Tchaikovsky something of an anticlimax after the harrowing drama of the Sorrowful Songs, and the Vaughan Williams seemed to have been put it to pad out the evening. A remarkable performance nonetheless.

Weeping Tudor

Weeping Tudor

Commented 30 months ago - 7th November 2013 - 04:24am

There is another performance of the Symphony of Sorrowful Songs later this month in London:

London Philharmonic Orchestra's performance at Southbank Centre's Royal Festival Hall on Wednesday 27th November 2013.

With soprano Allison Bell and a performance of Krzysztof Penderecki's Violin Concerto No.1 with Barnabas Kelemen on violin and Michal Dworzynski conducting.

If you are in London, this would be unmissable!

Weeping Tudor

Weeping Tudor

Commented 30 months ago - 7th November 2013 - 09:30am

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