Symphony weaves spell of magical Gorecki work

September 23, 1993|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Music Critic

"You're about to find out the mystery of why so many people love this music," said David Zinman yesterday in Meyerhoff Hall before he led the Baltimore Symphony in a performance of Henryk Gorecki's Symphony No. 3. ("Symphony of Sorrowful Songs"). "Or perhaps it will remain a mystery," the conductor added.

Zinman's recording with soprano Dawn Upshaw has sold more than 600,000 copies worldwide and, in Baltimore alone, several times more copies than the number of people -- about 2,500 -- who attended its first "live" performance here. The excellent reading Zinman and the orchestra gave with soprano Christine Brewer shed no new light on why the work is so popular. Its wonderful melodies are easy to follow, its structure is artful, its orchestration -- which cleverly hides the timbre of its wind parts in its string-driven texture -- is mesmerizing, and its message is consoling.

But the performance did shed light on why Zinman's recording is one of the best-selling CDs of all time. This is a work that was made to be listened to in solitude, preferably with headphones on. Only then does it completely weave its meditative magic, placing the listener in a trance-like state.

It is only on records that one can hear the work with a voice like Upshaw's. In actual concert, Upshaw's voice -- with its delicate, soul-penetrating power -- could never have been heard above the large orchestra. Brewer is a fine lyric soprano with enough heft in her voice to suggest that she will soon shine in dramatic roles. But as intelligently and sensitively as she sang the three sorrowful texts of each movement, she could not convey the intimacy that the microphone-highlighted Upshaw does on records. The Gorecki Third may be a work for our post-modernist, millenarian era for several reasons -- not the least of them is that it is tailor-made for the technology that makes listening in the silence of solitude so seductive.

If the Gorecki No. 3 is a private work, the Brahms Symphony No. 1, which concluded the program, is a public one. It was written to be heard with a large audience hanging on a conductor and orchestra as they strive to meet its heroic demands. The performance that Zinman and the BSO gave last night was taut and energetic as it drove unhesitatingly to its triumphal conclusion. This listener can understand why the conductor omitted the first movement repeat -- the long program ended at 10:30 p.m. -- but the performance would have developed even more mass and momentum with it.

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