Back in 2015, Nonesuch Records announced a huge reissue campaign for Henryk Górecki to tie in with the premiere release of his posthumous Symphony No. 4.
The reissues included a seven-disc box set of Nonesuch’s Górecki catalog and the vinyl release of his popular Symphony No. 3 featuring Dawn Upshaw. At first, these releases were set for September 2015, but they got pushed back to January 2016.
I fell for Górecki’s Symphony No. 3 like the millions of others who bolstered the album to the top of the classical charts. In the UK, it became a top 10 hit on the pop chart.
The Third Symphony was such a moving work that I was hesitant to explore his other pieces. Kronos Quartet introduced me to Górecki with its recordings of his string quartets, so I already knew the Third Symphony was a stylistic anomaly.
The intensity of Górecki’s work makes them intimidating to approach. When his compositions get quiet, they practically disappear. Then out of nowhere, a cluster of notes fly off the score.
The first movement of the Symphony No. 4 demonstrates this trait well. After three minutes of pounding a single idea, the orchestra gets quiet, almost silent. It’s a brief reprieve because the pounding continues just seconds later. Fiddling with the volume knob is useless.
As such, Górecki became one of those composers about whom I would genuinely be curious but not enough of a fan to get every recording.
The reissue campaign set me on course to change that.
Of the six albums previously released by Nonesuch, I owned half of them: the Third Symphony, and all three string quartets recorded by Kronos. The two albums I never owned were available on streaming services, but the one that wasn’t has the distinction of being the first Górecki album I ever bought: Lerchenmusik.
Lerchenmusik was paired with Kronos’ recording of his first string quartet. When Kronos reissued the first quartet to go along with a new recording his second quartet, I didn’t feel enough of an attachment to Lerchenmusik to hold onto it.
So I tracked a used copy of the album down to remind myself why. The first movement of the piece hugs the noise floor so tightly, you might think the CD was defective. It’s a lengthy work that doesn’t have the staying power of Three Pieces in the Old Style or the Harpsichord Concerto.
Reviews of the Fourth Symphony compared the work to the symphonies preceding the Third. Symphony No. 2 was easy to find, thanks to Naxos’ pervasive presence online and in retail. Symphony No. 1 was more of a challenge.
Koch Schwann released a recording of the First Symphony on the tail Symphony No. 3’s success, but after a series of acquisitions, the label’s catalog remains untapped.
Symphony No. 1 is steeped in modernism, and it establishes the harmonic language that would be the basis of his subsequent symphonies. But the work has few of his trademarks: the dynamic extremes, the folk melodies.
Symphony No. 2 actually hints at what would come in Symphony No. 3, but it employs a more extreme version of the harmonies explored by its predecessor. It starts off brutally but ends beautifully.
As tuneful as the Third may be, the symphonies surrounding it are actually a lot more interesting. They show off how skillfully Górecki could balance the past with the future.
It’s Górecki’s more tonal works, however, that listeners will flock to. When he eases up on the intensity, he can spin a melody. Three Pieces in the Old Style probably rivals the Third Symphony in terms of available recordings.