'Surprise' symphony of the 1990s

September 27, 1993

Mention "minimalism" in the same breath as "avant-garde classical music" and you're likely to send the average record buyer scurrying for cover behind the nearest Madonna poster. So we were intrigued by a report from London earlier this year describing the spectacular success of Baltimore Symphony Orchestra conductor David Zinman's recording of Polish composer Henryk Gorecki's Symphony No. 3, which reached the top of the British classical and pop charts, and outsold both Madonna and David Bowie.

Mr. Gorecki (pronounced "Gur-ET-ski") is hardly a household name, but his Symphony No. 3, subtitled "Symphony of Sorrowful Songs," has been the top-selling classical album in Baltimore for months. Mr. Zinman recorded the piece last year with the London Sinfonietta and it has sold some 600,000 copies worldwide, unprecedented for a classical recording, let alone for an album of music by a contemporary composer. Last week Mr. Zinman brought the Gorecki symphony to the Meyerhoff with the BSO in a performance so emotionally affecting that even the fine Brahms "Sympnohy No. 1" which followed sounded a bit perfunctory.

In his recently published "Companion to 20th Century Music," writer Norman Lebrecht described Gorecki's Third Symphony as "a slow, winding, ethereal work with soprano solo." A child of the 1956 Warsaw Autumn, Mr. Gorecki provoked the authorities early on by writing atonal music so extreme that the finale of his first symphony was banned by the censors. Later he retreated into a style combining religious and folk themes. The Symphony No. 3, composed in 1976 in the notoriously polluted city of Katowice, where Mr. Gorecki has spent virtually his entire career, is made up of three hauntingly lyrical movements, each depicting the broken bonds between a mother and child. Mr. Lebrecht has called the work "a premature requiem for communism. That music of such intense religiosity could be composed in a totalitarian state testified to the state's failure to control creativity."

Mr. Gorecki's symphony, we might add, is also a testament to the arbitrariness of the boundaries that separate so-called "serious music" from popular entertainment. His symphony speaks directly to ordinary people everywhere. As commentator David Drew observed in the notes accompanying Mr. Zinman's recording, "the light it sheds at first hearing is exceptionally bright and direct, and subsequent hearings do not diminish it." Surely that's as good a definition of a "classic" as any.

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