Here is a symphony that has been waiting in the in-tray longer than most. It was back in the early 1990s that a recording of Henryk Górecki’s Symphony No. 3, “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs”, unexpectedly caught the public imagination, selling a million copies worldwide and becoming probably the best-known piece of contemporary classical music.
Górecki subsequently received a commission for a Symphony No. 4 from the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Southbank Centre among others. This was finished in outline by 2006, but Górecki held on to the score and then died in 2010, and it has taken since then for a final version to be prepared by his son Mikolaj, also a composer, and released for its premiere.
Was it worth the wait? Anybody hoping for a repeat of the Third Symphony’s numinous halo of sound is in for a rude awakening. The Symphony No. 4 opens with thunderous chords for full orchestra, underpinned by three thumping bass drums and a painful discord from the organ. Episodes of balm follow – a chorale-like theme on lower strings, two clarinets in duet, a piano accompanying a lone cello. A pattern has been set in which the symphony progresses in blocks of extreme contrasts, each apparently unrelated to the one before, until orchestra and organ suddenly agree on a blazing final chord – a cop-out, as Górecki produces his clinching triumph like a rabbit out of a hat.
A popular desire for simple, spiritual listening carried the Symphony No. 3 further than anybody (including Górecki) could have expected. It is hard to see its successor enjoying the same success. The new symphony is crude in outline and its very simplistic parts fail to add up as its predecessor did, at least on an emotional level.
Full marks, though, to the London Philharmonic for continuing to offer the most adventurous concerts in London. Górecki’s symphony bears the subtitle “Tansman Episodes” in a tribute to Polish composer Alexandre Tansman and conductor Andrey Boreyko conceived a chain of tributes, pairing it with Tansman’s Stèle in memoriam Igor Stravinsky, and Stravinsky’s own Violin Concerto, played with brio by Julian Rachlin. That is creative programming – even if Stravinsky’s pithy masterpiece did rather show up what was on either side.