Beth Gibbons Revitalizes Henryk Górecki’s ‘Symphony No. 3’ With the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra

Polish composer Henryk Górecki has enjoyed more success than perhaps any other figure in contemporary classical music, primarily due to his immensely popular “Symphony No. 3.” The work’s widespread resonance with the public at large is a phenomenon that greatly defies explanation, as its isolated incidence doesn’t confirm to any distinguishable broader trend. In a way, the relative mystery of the symphony’s appeal makes it all the more impressive. One could argue that the more difficult it is to pinpoint the specific qualities or aspects of a musical work that appeal to listeners, the purer and more profound the potency of the work. Some way or other, Górecki managed to strike a chord, and provoke an enthusiastic response in the cultural consciousness. “Symphony No. 3 (Symphony of Sorrowful Songs)” was debuted in 1977 to tepid reception, but ended up topping classical charts in both America and Britain after a 1992 version, performed by the London Sinfonietta, brought it back to light. Soon, the second movement was a fixture on television ads and film soundtracks, making Górecki a proper force in pop culture. A new recording, breathing fresh life into the monumental work, features the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of none other than the legendary, iconoclastic Krzysztof Penderecki, widely considered Poland’s greatest living composer and conductor. On vocal duties, the orchestra has been wonderfully paired with none other than Beth Gibbons of trip-hop pioneers Portishead. Much like Górecki, Gibbons has an appeal that is elusive, yet undeniable. Her delicate voice, without crying for attention, soundtracked a climactic merging of genres that largely defined the ‘90s, and molded the shape of much music to come. Her candid delivery always favored authenticity of expression to refinement of technique, and any Portishead fan would vouch for her priorities. In the world of classical music, many would consider Beth Gibbons anathema which makes this release especially interesting.

The first movement is instrumental for roughly twelve minutes, and serves as an illustrative example for the choice of the “sacred minimalism” descriptor applied to the work. A prominent figure of the Polish avant-garde, Górecki dabbled in serialism and all the atonal mischief that typically confounds and alienates the layman. At a certain point, apparently having exhausted his madcap experimental proclivities, he reverted to a strikingly less alien, more accessible style, which became known as “sacred minimalism.” The composition is rather austere, limiting itself to a modest central motif, and engaging the listener with meditative musings on this simple framework, rather than ostentatious demonstrations of virtuosity or oblique, cerebral abstractions.

Eventually, three stabs at a piano cue the entry of Gibbons, and the music rapidly takes on a whole new character. At once, Gibbons strikes as slightly out of place, which should not be much of a surprise. Every other known performance of the symphony has featured a serious soprano. We’re talking Maria Callas-type discipline — no air conditioning, no deep-fried foods, vocal exercise routines at 5 a.m., and all the works. Surely, there are opera singers out there who consider this release both the cruelest form of treachery and an alarming sign of the debasement of high culture. On the other hand, there are plenty who say Gibbons’ singing “humanizes” the work, and while this has the ring of a lazy euphemism, there’s certainly some truth to it. It’s imperative that we conserve our artistic heritage undiluted and uncorrupted, but equally imperative that we do not allow appreciation of tradition to swell into fascistic snobbery. Fans of Górecki should be particularly attune to this reality, as the composer has always done things his own way. And if you take the piece at face value, free from the baggage of any previous associations — as many art purists would insist you should — you would likely find Gibbons’ performance chillingly emotive.

The second movement of Górecki’s “Symphony No. 3” took inspiration from an inscription discovered scrawled on the wall of a German Gestapo prison cell from the second world war, with an English translation of “Oh Mamma do not cry, no. Immaculate Queen of Heaven, you support me always.” Regarding his fascination with the message, Górecki has explained, “She does not despair, does not cry, does not scream for revenge. She does not think about herself; whether she deserves her fate or not. Instead, she only thinks about her mother.” Gibbons takes on a more prominent role for this movement, and there are fleeting moments when her familiar voice will make Portishead fans gush, along with those that will likely make opera stiffs consider dismounting their pedestals. It should be noted that Gibbons is not a Polish speaker, but still managed to learn and perform the Polish vocal. Many seem to consider this some extraordinary feat, although the real singers among you might be relatively unphased. After all, music is about sound — and if you can hear a sound, you can mimic it, regardless of whether you understand what it means. That said, foreign languages have foreign systems of pronunciation that can be virtually impossible to penetrate — try getting any English speaker to properly pronounce “Goethe” for example.

The performance reaches a dramatic peak during the third movement. Continuing the theme of familial separation, this portion was inspired by a mid-15th-century folk song with a passage in which the Virgin Mary speaks to Jesus, as he dies on the cross, saying, “O my son, beloved and chosen, Share your wounds with your mother …” Gibbons’ voice is consistently poignant, all raw emotion, and just knowing her level of investment in this project, foreign language and all, makes one appreciate it in a new light. She often sounds quite shrill — but then again, she’d probably only sound more so if she were an actual soprano. At any rate, she sounds at once admirably devoted to her role and just off kilter enough to imbue the performance with a certain elemental freshness.   

The trend toward minimalism can be worrisome. Victorian script ceded to Helvetica. Popular music devolved from jazz to rock to rap, and will likely further devolve to guttural noises, and follow this trajectory to its inevitable endpoint — total silence, presumably. Interestingly, Górecki’s “Symphony No. 3” is subject to the same criticism, as it represented a stark shift to center, and a triumph of minimalism. Still, it’s a vestige of an art form that must be treasured, even if it calls for rather gimmicky means. Beth Gibbons always embraced the tragic, and managed to reveal the beauty within it, in her work with Portishead, which makes her odd casting in this role actually quite perfect. Altogether, the release is an engaging and provocative listen that will hopefully attract a new audience to a cherished work.

Symphony No. 3 (Symphony of Sorrowful Songs)” is available March 29 on Apple Music.