Dawn Upshaw, soprano
London Sinfonietta conducted by David Zinman

Nonesuch 79282-2, 1992

[This is the review I wrote for a local BBS in 1993. - Chaz]

The British music charts were never quite so heavily manipulated as their American counterparts, which makes it doubly amazing that a "classical" album rose to Number Six on the UK album chart this spring, prompting a review by Rolling Stone on this side of the pond and inducing ultra-mainstream retailers like Sound Whorehouse (soon to be absorbed into Cropduster Video) to stock the title even in provincial locations like Midwest City, Oklahoma.

Cover artHenryk Górecki is in his sixtieth year; he has always been associated with the avant-garde wing of contemporary music, the guys who produce the dry, academic, utterly uninvolving stuff that gets grants. But Górecki's Third Symphony, written in 1976, cuts to the heart of the matter almost from the first bar. And it requires no difficulty to see why he chose his subject matter — the Polish town of Katowice, where he was educated and where his family still lives, is one of those anonymous cities in the Silesians that will forever be overshadowed by its neighbor Oswiecim. The Germans called it Auschwitz.

Three texts go into the so-called "Symphony of Sorrowful Songs". The first is a lamentation of 15th-century Polish monks, set in an alternately ascending and descending canon for strings, driven by the double basses; you can hear the monks wearily climbing the prayer tower, rousing their spirits for the daily invocation, and then returning the way they came, a little more tired and a little more dispirited.

The second movement, a third as long, opens with the heartening discovery of a prayer on a wall — which turns out to be the legacy of a teenager imprisoned by the Gestapo. Beaten and broken, she persists in trying to see whatever good side there may be to her fate.

And an Opole folk song finishes the work, with an unhappy mother demanding in no uncertain terms: "Why did you kill my son?" There is a note of resignation that turns, briefly, into triumph, as the piece moves into a major key for the first time in fifty minutes. Triumph, though, is premature; let us call it simple acceptance, and draw the curtain of charity over the scene.

The instrumentation is sparse — strings and a single piano, over which the words are impressed upon your heart by American soprano Dawn Upshaw. It is, indisputably, a sorrowful work, yet it clings to vestiges of hope. And if there is no hope, we are, indeed, truly lost.


Produced by Colin Matthews
Engineer: Tony Faulkner
Assistant: Declan McGovern
Recorded at: CTS Studios, London
Editing and Post-Production: Marian Freeman for Modus Music
Mastering by: Robert C. Ludwig
Executive producer: Robert Hurwitz

Posted 22 January 1997; updated, and cover art added, 5 November 1997

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Copyright © 1993, 1997 by Charles G. Hill
Cover art © 1992 by Elektra Entertainment