A major birthday today, Henryk Mikołaj Górecki was one of Poland's greatest composers of all time, and I think it's safe to say one of the greatest of composers in general. Gorecki was born December 6th, 1933 and died November 12th, 2010. While "Beatus Vir" is 'relatively' well known, Gorecki's Symphony No. 2 "Copernican" is not.
The Symphony No. 2 is a major work; of that there can be no doubt whatsoever. The background to the composition was a commission from the Kosciuszko Foundation in New York to produce a piece of music to celebrate the half millennium of the great Polish astronomer Mikolaj Kopernik (1473-1543) - better known to the world as Copernicus.
What resulted was a work that touched the heavens but is also deeply rooted on earth. Gorecki uses a whole range of material to produce what can only be regarded as a timeless masterpiece.
What was Copernicus' achievement? Quite simply he was the first person (in 'modern times') to suggest that the world went round the sun. It is as simple as that. But with this straightforward discovery he turned the entire scientific and theological system upside down. It was the end of an era. Humankind was no longer the centre of the universe. Gorecki himself wrote, "…we became nothing. Hence the duality of the two movement symphony; first the whole mechanism, let us say, of the world, followed by contemplation". And that is exactly what the piece achieves.
The first movement opens with great clusters of sound; dense, mechanical and violent. It seems to describe the mechanical lumbering of the universe as it churns on its journey through time and space. There is a pause from this fearsome construction. A gentler version of this material gives the listener a respite from the opening pages. There are a number of digressions; many with unusual sonorities, before the return of the first theme complete with full choir.
The second movement makes use of soprano and baritone. Here the effect can at times be almost operatic. They sing long phrases at two octaves apart. But before this great song the baritone has to struggle to realise what the importance of the Copernican revolution actually is. Here there are intimations of the later Symphony No. 3. The second movement closes with what is the finest ending of almost any symphony. Time itself is made to stand still. One is reminded of the effect of certain pieces by Messiaen and the later school of minimalists. Yet there is a great beauty in these closing pages. Simple yet exceedingly complex. There is no doubt that the Symphony ends on an optimistic note. In spite of the great 'world shattering' discovery of Copernicus, God is still the God "who created the heavens and the earth ... the sun to rule by day, the moon and stars to rule by night". So in some respects nothing has changed.
Antoni Wit and his forces handle this symphony admirably. The sound scheme created by Gorecki straddles two worlds. The world of the Polish experimentalists such as Penderecki and Lutoslawski and the new 'accessible' style first really apparent in the "Pieces In Olden Style" (1962). The soprano is radiant and the baritone is able to infect the music with a sense of wonderment and discovery.
The coupling on this disc is the "Beatus Vir" that was composed to celebrate the 900th anniversary of the martyrdom of the Bishop of Cracow. The commission came from Karol Wojtyla, then Cardinal of Cracow but soon to become Pope John Paul II. The work is dedicated to the Pope. There is no doubt that this is an extremely accessible choral work; it would sound stunning in any one of the great cathedrals of Europe. Beatus Vir are words from the 33rd (Anglican 34th) Psalm - 'Blessed is the man who trusts in Him.' The work is characterized by straightforward melodic patterns and harmonies; lovely melodies that seem to be straight out of the churches' ecclesiastical music books. The pages are truly beautiful and perfect in every respect. Gorecki was a deeply religious man. He was brought up during the Nazi holocaust and the Communist repression that followed yet he retained his Catholicism. This tradition and this devotion shows tellingly in this great work.