Alexandre Tansman Stelè in memoriam Igor Stravinsky (1972)

Jean Sibelius Violin Concerto in D Minor, Op. 47 (1903-05)

Henryk Górecki Symphony No. 4 Tansman Epizody (“Tansman Episodes"), Op. 85 (2006) [First U.S. performances]

Nikolaj Znaider (violin)
Los Angeles Philharmonic
Andrey Boreyko (conductor)
Walt Disney Concert Hall
January 18, 2015

Perched at the corner of 2nd and Grand, on the hilltop heart of L.A.’s downtown, the Walt Disney Concert Hall billows its flashy curves like a promise of steel bliss. Across the street, the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, L.A.’s opera temple, looks down its square façade at the strange swirl of activity below. From the other side, the Broad Museum’s bleached honeycomb covering hides its contemporary art treasures like some later day Lascaux. All this within sight of the Los Angeles Times’s proud but dilapidated Art Deco fortress—a relic from the days of newspaper empires. Home to the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Disney Hall has redefined its surroundings. In a city famous for its lack of center, it feels undeniably like one. There is something about its design that denies it a quiet, anonymous existence among downtown’s jumble of towers. It has the commanding presence of a found object, like a crumpled soda can, or Wallace Stevens’s famous jar on a hill in Tennessee.

Not only has Disney Hall redefined the material contour of downtown L.A.: it has helped to push the L.A. Philharmonic into the forefront of international musical culture, which status the organization has maintained in large part thanks to its commitment to big, new “modernist” symphonic works. The Philharmonic’s U.S. debut performances of the late Henryk Górecki’s Symphony No. 4 Tansman Epizody (“Tansman Episodes”), co-commissioned along with the London Philharmonic in conjunction with the Southbank Centre, and the Amsterdam Concertgebouw-based ZaterdagMatinee concert series (with further support from the Adam Mickiewicz Institute), were only the latest example. Though the London Philharmonic gave the world premiere last April under the baton of Russian conductor Andrey Boreyko, who also led these American performances, the L.A. Philharmonic’s investment in Górecki is not unlike the one they have in Gehry. Both men were already established entities before the Philharmonic came knocking. Gehry, of course, had scored a major success with his mid-1990s design for the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, and Górecki’s Third Symphony, the Symfonia pieśni żałosnych (“Symphony of Sorrowful Songs”), had its startling rise to fame during the same decade. The Symphony had actually been premiered as far back as 1977, though it hardly made much of a stir at the time. But in 1991 the London Sinfonietta recorded the work, conducted by David Zinman featuring the soprano Dawn Upshaw. For decades, Górecki had been living in the shadow of his more famous Polish colleagues Witold Lutosławski and Krzysztof Penderecki. All three made a name for themselves during the first years of the Warsaw Autumn Festival, the Polish avant-garde music showcase that first sprung into existence during the late 1950s thaw. However, Górecki never quite managed to trade his successes at the Festival in for substantial international attention, just as Lutosławski and Penderecki had been able to do at a much earlier point.

Henryk Górecki during the 1990s. Image by Malcolm Crowthers

Henryk Górecki during the 1990s. Image by Malcolm Crowthers

Released in 1992 on the Nonesuch Records label, the London Sinfonietta’s account of the Third Symphony changed all that. It sold in record numbers and became a legitimate crossover hit. Almost overnight, Górecki rose to international prominence. But the work’s dramatic rise from obscurity is only half the story. The other half is the stylistic turn the music represented, the Third Symphony having decisively eschewed the thorny, "sonorist" modernism of Górecki’s early period in favor of the more traditional, modally inflected gestures he had begun to explore in the late 1960s. One of the major wellsprings for this new style was the composer’s renewed interest in early Polish sacred music, something more than a little reminiscent of another Eastern Bloc composer: Arvo Pärt. Like Górecki, Pärt was inspired to rethink his approach to composition after an extended study of early music. Both men were deeply concerned with conveying religious sentiment, and in both cases, the change of style led to wider acceptance and even international “stardom.” In Górecki’s case, though, that acceptance was delayed by almost fifteen years, and it would be another twenty until he wrote his next, and last, symphony. In true “late style,” he died before completing it. What he left instead was the full work, fleshed out as a piano score, reportedly including detailed instructions regarding the orchestration. His son Mikołaj, who is himself an accomplished composer, took it from there. (Polish music authority Adrian Thomas writes: "Although much of the instrumentation was already written into the short score, elsewhere Mikołaj Górecki drew on his intimate knowledge of his father’s music and thought processes. The use of three bass drums in the first movement, for example, comes from Górecki’s comments to his son when he played the Symphony to him on the piano in 2006.")

There is a prominent tradition in music criticism regarding “late style,” as exemplified by the late string quartets of Beethoven, which moved by way of the juxtaposition of highly formalized processes, development taking a back seat as the various textures just “happened,” one after another, without emulating an organicist life-cycle of growth and decay. Górecki’s Fourth Symphony certainly manifests “lateness” in this sense, for it is also built out of discrete sections, placed side by side—more like a set of tableaux than a continuous narrative. Earlier in the 20th century, Igor Stravinsky had been the first to really explore composing via parataxis, or “montage” (Stravinsky, describing his Orpheus: “Here, you see, I cut off the fugue with a pair of scissors”). There is an apt Russian word for this piecemeal quality: drobnost’. Górecki’s Fourth Symphony is a textbook example of drobnost’. Each type of material has its own particular orchestration, tending only to sit there until the next textural block makes its appearance—no transitions, no development in the “organic” sense of the word, just abject slabs or wedges of texture.

Fittingly, the concert opened with a piece by Górecki’s elder countryman, Alexandre Tansman’s Stèle in memoriam Igor Stravinsky, composed in 1972 in response to the death of the 20th-century titan. The music, itself in Tansman’s “late style,” opens with suave chords and subtle melodic brushstrokes, before the orchestra swells into more expressive gestures, the Elegia first movement closing with a plush, bright sonority. The second, Studio ritmico, kicks off with loopy, astringent string lines. The woodwinds initiate an imitative trajectory, which proliferates throughout the orchestra; sinuous, expressive lines mark the whole. Lamento, the closing movement, opens with a magic clockwork texture, numerous quick gestures whirring by before leaving off with long, static chords. On the whole, Tansman’s Stèle is well-dressed music, cool and sophisticated, like an expensive vase. Significantly, in the Fourth Symphony Górecki utilized a motive based on Tansman’s name, a mnemonic of musical tones corresponding to the letters in “Aleksander Tansman” (tellingly, Górecki used the Polish spelling of Tansman’s first name). Apparently, he was inspired to write the work at the Tansman International Festival of Musical Personalities—hence the reference—though one must also assume that there is a deeper significance to Górecki’s invoking the name of his under-appreciated compatriot, a man who was torn all his life between cosmopolitan and more specifically “Polish” musical impulses. Whatever the case, Boreyko’s conducting was clean, movements hushed. Lines were clearly delineated and contours kept smooth. There was a palpable intimacy, even warmth, throughout. Boreyko’s motions were small and measured, as if he wanted to avoid over-exciting the orchestra. All the gestures stayed in a window at about shoulder’s height. It was precise without being pedantic.

Conductor Andrey Boreyko. Image by Richard de S  toutz

Conductor Andrey Boreyko. Image by Richard de Stoutz

In stark contrast to all that refinement, Górecki’s Fourth Symphony kicked alive with repetitions of a heaving, angular motive distributed throughout the ensemble. Low drum thuds added a dry edge to each iteration. Timbres were piled on in thick blotches, blended unevenly, with a resplendently muted stained glass effect. I couldn’t help but think of the rough-hewn sfumato of Georges Rouault, whose stylized Fauvist portraits are not so much molded out of soft shadings as accreted with juxtaposed blocks of color. Yet Rouault’s colors, like Górecki’s, still exhibit a delicacy of blend, though this only comes about because the superabundant colors are soldered together in dark, chalky outlines. In a similar way, Górecki tends to throw together utterly disparate timbres, united only by the mutual dark matter of their lack of coherence. It’s not the startling juxtaposition of instruments wailing at extreme registers, though—that’s a familiar enough “maximalist” gambit. Rather, Górecki’s instruments sit comfortably in their traditional expressive ranges. Instead, the composer suggests a larger set of bounds. Between each burst of color-line, there is a stark, “loud” silence. Each action is met with an equal inaction. What are these pauses, these rips in the aural fabric? Górecki puts us face to face with the ground and necessary precondition of every musical utterance. Nothingness has a role to play here.

Yet it is difficult to tell, on the basis of the Fourth Symphony’s opening, what is framing what. Are the mute blocks being interrupted by noisy symphonic petitions, or are the orchestral emanations being defined by their own momentary withdrawals? Of course, the question is useless. (Yeats: “How can we know the dancer from the dance?”) It is more useful to think of the two as mutually constitutive. The short motive is made monumental by the sheer audacity of the silence framing it. The quiet gives us pause—literally—and therefore an opportunity to think about what just happened, to actually cogitate on the “naïve” gesture that has not only failed to move on, to develop and morph in established symphonic fashion, but has also failed to keep going in any fashion. For the music just sits there, objectified by the lack of continuity surrounding it. The silence serves to offer up each motive as a symbol. But it can also be swerved to serve another function.

For a devoutly, self-consciously Catholic composer like Górecki, such an application of silence naturally resonates with the principles of sense-abnegating apophatic (negative) theology. The apophatic approach seeks to describe God, not by enumerating His attributes (and it is, according to this tradition, most emphatically a capitalized masculine pronoun), but rather by outlining His silhouette. It is a description of God’s negative impress, a list of all the things God is not. In this game, all adjectives wear a negative aspect: not bounded, not visible, not time-bound, not mortal. Górecki's fondness for aural hide-and-seek in the Fourth is almost too neat a metaphor for this particular habit of theological thought.

The pleading repetitions are litanies, like the formalized petitions to God ubiquitous in religious ritual. They plead for mercy, for purity, for strength. The pleas have a time and a place and a manner of proceeding. They are unabashedly formulaic and invariant. This is exactly how Górecki’s repetition proceeds. It is not the exquisite superimposition of reiterated gestures that makes the “holy minimalism” of Arvo Pärt ring. Neither is it the alchemical, rhythmically dazzling repetition of an Olivier Messiaen. Rather, it is the humble repetition of a sincere believer, alloyed neither by the spiritual display of the one nor the cultivated sophistication of the other. Górecki’s repetition is on the straight and narrow, peeking neither left nor right. And so, as these musical symbols of piety peal out to open the Fourth Symphony, they summon the sound of tolling bells, of how they cling in simple, repeated patterns (they can also be rung in dizzyingly complex patterns, to be sure, but Górecki’s is apparently a small country parish). I thought of how splashy yet muted their tone quality can be. So it starts with bells, bells as intercessors on our behalf, bells as witnesses to our search for forgiveness in ritual.

Before we grow too accustomed to this divine simplicity, the organ (bolstered by the hard-edged piano) emits a long-held chord, throwing a pall over the orchestra’s repeated tolling. The new addition initiates a reaction, as the motive thins down to piano and glockenspiel. After all the stasis, this fresh display of dynamism pulls the ears in. Something is happening. Our instincts are on alert—ears poised, eyes sharpened, thoughts stayed. As sudden as the lightning flash of divine illumination, a shock of sound floods over the humble gestures. It’s the organ, now huge and menacing. Behemoth pipes push out monstrous sounds, gnarled clusters in the middle-low range, inundating the orchestral texture. More than an ecstatic vision, it is an ecstatic sensation, the huge mass of sound coursing through the body in sympathetic vibration. The organ growls displace time as well as air. But even this transcendent, religiose noisemaker must eventually bow before the simple repetition of the opening, and with humility. Silence still has a say, and it becomes more menacing: when will the thunderbolt of tone strike again? The comfortable litanies have turned unsettling, transmogrified into ecstatic visions for which few are prepared. Actually, nobody ever is. That’s the point of visions: they choose us, and not the other way around.

Mikołaj Górecki. Image by  Mariusz Makowski

Mikołaj Górecki. Image by Mariusz Makowski

But Górecki does not strand us in the land of fire and brimstone without a palliative. The next theme slips in between bouts of cosmic rumbling: a chorale in the low strings, serene and orderly. Its chords glide forward in a smooth harmonic logic, a far cry from the disjointed clusters that occasionally startle it out of place. As these extremes alternate in sharply cut blocks, a third theme wafts gently in. Two clarinets, lilting and saccharine, sing modestly over the string chorale, adding a pastoral gloss. According to Thomas, the clarinet idea was taken from the concluding movement (“Chrystus niech mi będzie grodem”) of Karol Szymanowski’s Stabat mater. A work of capital importance for the development of 20th century Polish musical modernism, Szymanowski’s Stabat mater was much beloved by Górecki, and that earlier work’s “austere peasant realism” certainly strikes a chord with the Fourth Symphony. Whatever the precise meaning of the quotation, though, there is still a tension in the sweetness, as the menacing, organ-backed shrieks are always lingering just around the corner, ready to tear the enchanted et in arcadia ego asunder.

The chorale theme soon filters out into the whole string section, pouring soothing softness between flickers of quiet tolling. Church choirs and bells—or at least, textures calling them to mind—ground the entire Fourth Symphony. It’s not just the symbolic aspects of the chorale texture that make it feel familiar, but its reliance on the unadulterated purity of consonant triads. Harmonic motion of this type tends to suggest tonality, which is a shorthand for belonging, a musical return chez the tonic. Home is where tonality is.

But in Górecki’s Fourth Symphony, tonality has more than one face. The soft lines of the string chorale are quickly taken over by an off-kilter march, low strings muttering, brass plodding along in a flat fanfare above. Here, tonality isn’t eased into, but hammered. It’s deliberately clunky, hollow, built from sheer thickheaded intransigence. At first blush, it feels out of place. Why the unexpected caricature of Socialist realism, the grotesque, garish treatment? Particularly given the course taken by Polish history during the 20th century? The church elements, at least, hint at something otherworldly. The heavy-footed Mahlerian march, on the other hand, is sham sanguine—even more base for being in the thick of Górecki’s mystical ruminations. Yet the irruption of the grossly concrete into the ethereally ideal is a common occurence in the broader symphonic tradition. It is part and parcel of the sprawling, turn of the century Weltanschauungsmusik aesthetic, of which Mahler’s behemoth creations were the crowning pinnacle. These works aimed to encompass experience as such, irrespective of whether that experience included klezmer bands, banal civic marches, or grand Wagnerian outbursts. These works were potboilers at heart, freely juxtaposing the profound and the mundane, the sacred and the profane, in hopes of achieving a phenomenological one-to-one with life as it was actually lived. Górecki’s Fourth follows in this path. It is music that takes upon itself an entire worldview, an endeavor catholic as well as Catholic.

Later, the expansive and eclectic opening sections are wiped clean away with an extended passage pared down to chamber music proportions. An expressive solo cello line meanders over calm yet ever-shifting piano figuration. In both instrumentation and gesture, this aching simplicity is not a little suggestive of the ecstatic louange movements from Messiaen’s harrowing wartime classic Quatuor pour la fin du temps. A lone violin and then a piccolo join in as the gestures grow in intensity. At key moments, the activity lets up to reveal the silence beneath, just as at the start. But the pared down delicacy doesn’t last, and Górecki throws his listeners back into the fray once more, another iteration of the sardonic march butting in. The trumpets hint at a “positive” apotheosis, marshaling a succession of triumphant chords. One might think of the words famously attributed to Dmitri Shostakovich: “It's as if someone were beating you with a stick and saying, ‘Your business is rejoicing, your business is rejoicing.’” But as now seems customary with this Symphony, no sooner do we settle into an uninterrupted texture than the rug is pulled straight up from beneath us.

Except this time it isn’t to steal a glimpse at the underlying silence. Rather, Górecki has the piano—unaccompanied—establish a succession of majestic chords based on the Tansman motive, mystical and exuberant. The solo gesture, however, proves but a prelude to the organ’s imminent return. As the sublime roar recurs, we once again hear the repeated idea from the opening, unmistakable in its brutality, now alternating with the heavenly string choir in its most delicate and ethereal guise. Just as another onslaught of gargantuan thumps seems poised to cut in on Górecki’s serene quietude, a massive triple bass drum crescendo instigates the final brisk, brilliant blaze of A major, tossed off like a gleeful “Amen” to this secular mass.

To the extent that posthumous musical works only receive their public “resurrection” following the death of their composer, they always have a built-in cachet. Hearing them feels like something of a miracle. With large works such as Górecki’s Fourth, the sense of awed curiosity is only compounded: unlike with a poem or painting, their creator never really got to experience them in the first place. They seem to bridge the putatively unbridgeable chasm between the realms of the living and the dead. What Górecki jotted down in his last moments assumes its aural form only now that his hand has been forever quieted. The Fourth Symphony fits the mold well, surveying the various styles he adopted throughout his career in a tightly wound form that works inasmuch it is constantly shuffling those styles around. Each of the musical tropes has a say—from the diaphanous chorale to the bumptious march, and from the sublimely frightening clusters to the meditative lyricism of the cello solo. Yet because there is a constant back and forth movement between them, they also refract each other’s presence. And in the end, one can’t help but think they refract something of Górecki’s physical presence, as well.

Damjan Rakonjac is a music critic, composer, and musicologist. He has written for the Los Angeles Times and is the founder of The Artificialist.

Banner image courtesy Adrian Thomas (