LEBRECHT LISTENS | New Gorecki Album Sheds Light On His Inner World

By Norman Lebrecht on May 20, 2022


Henryk Mikołaj Górecki: Piano Works (Accord)


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When an unknown Polish composer burst into the pop charts in 1992 with an ethereal third symphony, I arranged to meet him twice, in Brussels and London. Gorecki spoke only Polish and German, the latter with reluctance in light of his wartime memories. I got the impression of a stubborn man of strong character with an unshakable faith in God, a hatred of Communism, and a contempt for effete Western fashions. Pierre Boulez had called his third symphony ‘merde’ and Gorecki was no less withering about him.

Gorecki’s early works, however, were no less modern than Boulez. This luminous album, performed by his daughter Anna Gorecka, reveals just how experimental Gorecki was before the seraphic melody of the third symphony sold a million CDs. His earliest set of preludes, dated 1955, are percussively Bartokian. From the Bird’s Nest (1956) is reminiscent of Janacek’s country walks. Three Dodecaphonic Pieces from the following year are orthodox Anton von Webern. Gorecki was boldly playing with ice and fire under a regime that punished what it called ‘formalism’.

But, there is much more to this music than meets the ear on first hearing. His piano-bashing preludes, dedicated to a fellow-student he would marry, betray furtive passion. The nature essays are craggier than those Czech ramblings, and even his serialism wears a human, Polish face. Where his famous contemporary Penderecki softened his style to appease the apparatchiks and gain a global market, Gorecki stayed in provincial Katowice, maintaining his principled atonality and writing intriguing asperities for piano — until that earworm symphony destroyed his privacy and made him the top-selling living symphonist of all time.

His daughter’s extraordinary collection, intimately played, reveals an unmediated invention, from hailstones on a window pane to a mind-opening, ball-breaking sonata. Meet the inner Gorecki. He’s really worth knowing.

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