Review: Beth Gibbons and the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra

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Beth Gibbons and the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra

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Symphony #3 - Symphony of Sorrowful Songs Opus 36 by Henryk Górecki

(Domino Records - CD)

Even at the helm of the so -dventurous Portishead, Beth Gibbons’ vocals always felt as though they were dreaming of greater challenges.

Well, here they are.For not only does this recording pair her with one of the most glorious works in the modern European canon (written in late 1976, Górecki’s Symphony #3 was premiered the following year), it also puts her up against one of the most successful classical CDs of the last thirty years, by the London Sinfonietta, and soprano Dawn Upshaw’s seemingly unassailable performance.

Released in 1992, and selling more than a million copies since then, it was the Sinfonietta’s recording that pulled Polish composer Górecki out of his comparative international obscurity and into a worldwide spotlight.

It helped, of course, that it was the most easily digestible of hisearly works, but that was only a part of its appeal.It’s also a piece of unfathomable sadness, as its subtitle suggests.

Three movements draw their lyrics from, in turn, a 15th century Marian lament; a message discovered written on the wall of a Gestapo prison cell; and a ballad composed around the time of the Silesian Uprising of 1919-1920.

As Górecki explained in 1995, “Many of my family died in concentration camps. I had a grandfather who was in Dachau, an aunt in Auschwitz. You know how it is between Poles and Germans. But Bach was a German too—and Schubert, and Strauss. Everyone has his place on this little earth. That's all behind me. So the Third Symphony is not about war; it's not a Dies Irae; it's a normal Symphony of Sorrowful Songs.”

First things first.Beth Gibbons is not Dawn Upshaw.She does not have the same studied control, the same effortless range; the same faultless control over the emotional impact of the piece.

But that is not a bad thing.Particularly across the third movement, “Lento, Cantabile-Semplice,” in fact, it is Gibbons’ lack of these things that hits hardest.It is so easy to imagine her, ragged and hungry, calling out for the son she hopes is merely missing, but fears has been murdered by “the cruel enemy.”The entire performance, by the way, is in Polish, and while the accompanying booklet does provide an English translation, the sheer wretched ache in Gobbons’ performance renders it almost unnecessary.

Recorded live in Warsaw in 2014, and conducted by Krzysztof Penderecki, it is a dark recording, melancholy but also uplifting.Górecki’s texts, after all, were selected not for the tragedy of their subject matter, but for the hope that hangs over each - the lines taken from the Gestapo cell simply ask “… mother, do not weep / Most chaste Queen of Heaven / Support me always / Hail Mary, full of grace.” The mourning mother concludes by asking that “God’s little flowers… blossom all around so that my son may sleep happily.”

Perhaps, by scheduling the release for 2019, Domino did intend for the music’s mood to somehow reflect the state of modern society, as has been suggested by some reviewers.But really, the message - like the music itself - is eternal, and it is the listener who transposes it into a cultural milieu.

What you do with this performance, then, is entirely your decision.But do something with it, because these are forty-nine minutes that you will want to keep reliving.