Gorecki’s Symphony No. 4: World Premiere at Southbank Centre

Southbank CentreThe World Premiere of Henryk Gorecki’s Symphony No. 4 (2010) was always going to create a feeling of tension and suspense. Symphony No. 3, Op. 36, the Symphony of Sorrowful Songs (1976), was not only a benchmark in the Polish composer’s canon, but it was also a testament to the depth that a score could accomplish on the themes of post-war reflection and recollection. On April 12, 2014, The London Philharmonic Orchestra did a spectacular job of bringing Symphony No. 4 to life at the Royal Festival Hall. With Andrey Boreyko at the helm, they provided a bold and electrifying rendition that brought out all the surprise, the awe and the playfulness of Gorecki’s intent.

The premiere had been scheduled to take place four years ago, but had been cancelled due to the composer’s ill health at that moment. The time in between is perhaps an indication of the meticulous nature of the man responsible for applying the finishing touches to this final work, which lay at the hands of Henryk’s son Mikolaj. For even though Symphony No. 4 was completed in 2006, Gorecki senior had hung on to the piece until his death in 2010, where it remained in written form only. Mikolaj, then aided the LPO in bringing the piece to life for this momentous event.

The Symphony is titled “Tansman Episodes” for reasons that go beyond the commission Gorecki was asked to write about his fellow countryman. It only seemed fitting therefore that the orchestra would begin by playing a piece by Tansman, which in turn was dedicated to the memory of Igor Stravinsky. Stele in memoriam Igor Stravinsky comprised three movements; the first of which was humble and reflective, bringing out the graceful and delicate nature of the composers’ relationship; Tansman had written a book about Stravinsky’s life and work, while Stravinsky referred to Tansman in his letters as his “friend of the heart.”  As Professor Adrian Thomas had indicated in his quite excellent pre-concert lecture, the audience were due for some demanding contrasts in texture and weight with Gorecki’s composition, the anticipation of which was lubricated by the orchestra in Tansman’s second movement. The closing sections of the final movement continued that intensity before it was overshadowed by quiet, haunting strings. The brass section submerged and then elegantly reappeared to accompany a series of soft string inflections. The meditative passages conjured in Symphony No. 3 were brought to the surface by the fragile sections in Tansman’s work, which made for a startling introduction to the evening.

Stravinsky’s Violin Concerto in D (1931) followed shortly afterwards, where each of the four movements opened with a chord that violinist Samuel Dushkin proclaimed to be “unplayable” after seeing it for the first time on paper – Dushkin then went to try and play the chord at home, nailed it, and reported back to Stravinsky that it was in fact possible. Stravinsky referred to the chord as a “passport” to this work, and watching Julian Rachlin execute it was hugely enjoyable. The Lithuanian violinist was on magnificent form, playing with a brilliantly rich combination of glee and sincerity. He seemed so desperately in love with the music that his resolve shone through in his countenance. He led the way through Stravinsky’s brilliantly tender composition with finesse and determination. The orchestra worked effortlessly with Rachlin, emphasizing how particular it was to have included Stravinsky after Tansman and before the premiere. Contrast played such a huge role in Tansman’s work, and would prove to do the same with Gorecki, but it was absent as a dominant factor here; a calm before the storm perhaps, a hushed yet vibrant moment of wonder before the final showdown.

Julian Rachlin

Julian Rachlin

With the excitement and apprehension that accompanied the symphony’s unveiling, the subjective response of those at the venue was always going to be rather personal. Indeed, the takeaway point for this writer was how spirited and free these movements were. The unperturbed, collected and evocative swirls within the Polish composer’s music are what primarily drew me to him; the way that one is permitted to approach the first movement in Symphony No. 3 and then respond to it over time while contemplating the messages behind it is quite astonishing. Symphony No. 4 on the other hand addressed the act of meditation, where swift and unpredictable details were thrown in to retain the listener’s focus; short and sharp bursts of energy appeared seemingly off the cuff; the thud of the drum came bounding in after the quietude of sweeping strings. It forced one to regain focus while still being drawn into the contemplative angle that Gorecki was famed for. This was demonstrated when the strings were interrupted by the gentle chiming of tubular bells, which were incredibly eerie because they realigned one’s attention. But the tranquil sensation of what preceded them wasn’t shattered, it was just skewed, like a wave being struck off course before crashing onto the shore.

The movements were continuous, and they exposed Gorecki’s enthusiasm for circus music. This is particularly striking because of its association with drama, acrobatics and parody—all in a controlled environment where unpredictable elements are kept at bay in a warped realm of entertainment that’s often sinister and cutting. Amidst the deep swells of violin and cello solos, the music gave a slightly jarring edge to the tone of the piece. It was exciting to listen to and fascinating to watch; there ensued a continual dilemma of how to relate to the emotions that the music conjured. It is for this reason that the music felt so powerful and impressive. It was indeed upsetting that Gorecki was not alive to see the World premiere of his most provoking and dramatic piece. It is pleasing to know, however, that after all this time, it has finally been played and that people have had the chance to hear it. To Mikalaj Gorecki and to the LPO, we should be eternally grateful.