Henryk Mikołaj Górecki: Symphony No. 3, op.36
Antonio Vivaldi: 12 Concerti op.9, “La Cetra”
Media Review / Listening Diary 2013-10-27
2014-11-09 — Re-posting as is (WordPress)
2016-07-13 — Brushed up for better readability
Henryk Mikołaj Górecki (1933 – 2010): Symphony No. 3, op.36
David Zinman, London Sinfonietta
Elektra Nonesuch 7559-79282-2 (CDs, stereo); ℗ 1992
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Yuri Simonov, The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
The International Music Company 204483-201 (CD, stereo); ℗ 1993
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Henryk Mikolaj Górecki (1933 – 2010) wrote his third Symphony op.36, the “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs” in 1976 — a very touching, highly emotional, yet meditative, contemplative composition that reflects on the events that took place in Poland (and in Europe in general) during the second World War: Hitler starting the war by attacking Poland, and later the dramatic and still hardly comprehensible crimes that were committed in concentration camps on Polish ground (as well as elsewhere).
Moreover, one cannot ignore that the Polish mind was “tragically preconditioned” by numerous mis-haps (a euphemism, I should say) in Poland’s history for several centuries in the past — all this may explain the depth of the feelings & thoughts that Górecki opens up in his compositions, namely in his symphonies, but of course also in his Miserere op.44 and the Amen, op.35 that I have mentioned in an earlier post.
I have two recordings of this composition, both shown above. Both are viable, good, if not excellent interpretations:
- David Zinman recorded this CD with Dawn Upshaw and the London Sinfonietta in May 1991;
- Yuri Simonov made his recording (which also includes the Three Pieces in Old Style) with Susan Gritton and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in June 1995
The two recordings are not dramatically different, overall — let me give the timings here, along with my ratings:
- Lento – sostenuto tranquillo ma cantabile:
Zinman: 26’47” (****)
Simonov: 27’58” (*****)
- Lento e largo – tranquillissimo – cantabilissimo – dolcissimo legatissimo:
Zinman: 9’45” (***)
Simonov: 9’22” (****)
- Lento – cantabile semplice:
Zinman: 17’11” (****)
Simonov: 16’09” (****)
Comments / Comparison
Overall, that leaves a small advantage for Simonov (4.3) over Zinman (3.7) — but let me explain:
The first part of the first movement is purely instrumental. Particularly in that part, I prefer the sound of the London Sinfonietta, featuring less vibrato and (hence) the clearer, cleaner intonation. One could call this interpretation more introverted, but maybe also less expressive (from the orchestra), more analytical.
The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, on the other hand, is very likely the bigger orchestra, and playing with more vibrato, more emotional, expressive if not extroverted; despite the stronger vibrato, I prefer that part of the interpretation overall (it just speaks to me more directly).
Human Voice Part
While with orchestral music I can adapt to a variety of styles / interpretations, human voices tend to provoke a clearer, more direct reaction, at least with me! In Zinman’s recording, Dawn Upshaw certainly is not bad; in this interpretation, the soprano appears to carry the bulk of the emotions, and she is very expressive — maybe too expressive at times, with the vibrato sometimes slightly nervous? Sure, she has a brilliant voice (but the smaller orchestra and the recording setup may have helped, too).
In Simonov’s recording, the emotionality appears more evenly spread between the orchestra, and Susan Gritton to me has a more natural (less nervous) vibrato, and a broader tonal range, albeit maybe slightly less brilliance in the central register. For me, voice and the orchestra are a better fit in this interpretation, the expressivity more evenly spread, and the soprano never really pushes the expression too far. Is it just my impression, or does the influence of the conductor make this interpretation sound / feel more “slavic”?
It’s mainly the soprano part and the balance between voice and orchestra which makes me prefer Simonov’s recording over Zinman’s.
Antonio Vivaldi (1678 – 1741): 12 Concerti op.9, “La Cetra”
Channel Classics CCS SA 33412 (2 CDs, stereo); ℗ / © 2012
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My Encounters with Vivaldi
Already my parents used to have an LP set with Vivaldi’s op.3, “L’Estro armonico”; I liked these pieces a lot, I heard several of them in concert. When I took violin lessons, as soon as I managed, I insisted on playing some of these concerti — I remember playing #8 (a minor), and #12 in E (parts only, possibly), but that’s about as much as my modest abilities permitted. I had trained #8 long enough to (almost) get fed up with it! On LP, I still have a recording of op.3 with I Musici di Roma — that I haven’t listened to in 30 years.
Then, of course, there are Bach’s transcriptions of some concerti (3 and 8 – 12) from op.3 for organ, which I really like. Still, I must confess that I hesitate adding CDs with Vivaldi’s op.3: in my mind, these pieces are a bit “worn out”. At least, I still know them pretty much by heart. In this context, one should maybe also keep in mind that at the time of their creation, for any member of the audience the chances of hearing any of these concertos twice, let alone more frequently was absolutely minimal (unless you were a member of the aristocracy and were entertaining your own, personal orchestra) — what a contrast to today’s music market where we can listen to the same composition dozens of times at our leisure!
The “Stravinsky Syndrome”?
Some of this may also have led to Igor Stravinsky’s often-mentioned, famous quote (that exists in multiple versions) stating that Vivaldi hasn’t really composed 500 (400?) concerti, but 500 (400?) times the same (I also heard it about 80 times the same concerto in A minor, or the like) — I’m not sure whether this is a true Stravinsky quote at all, though it just fits well into some of the statements that Stravinsky made about other composers and their compositions, or about music in general…
Just to be clear: it’s not the “Stravinsky syndrome” that has made me avoid adding L’Estro armonico to my collection — I still like these concerti very much: it’s just too easy to evoke that music in my inner ear. And I do have a small collection of other concerti by Vivaldi that I may eventually return to in this blog. In any case, it doesn’t need to be L’Estro armonico, as Vivaldi has indeed written several hundred different concerti for violin (and for other instruments).
I Musici di Roma?
Also, having grown up with Vivaldi recordings by I Musici di Roma — an ensemble that certainly deserves a lot of recognition for their pioneering role in the performance and the reception of Vivaldi’s concerti — I was looking for a different, “more HIP” type or recording. [ On a side note: when looking up their Web site, I was disappointed to see that I Musici di Roma appear to have evolved into a pure male ensemble — haven’t they always had women such as Pina Carmirelli and Maria-Teresa Garatti in prominent positions?? ]
Rachel Podger and “La Cetra”
That brings me to the recording above, featuring Vivaldi’s 12 Concerti for Violin, String Orchestra and Basso continuo op.9, called “La Cetra”. I know and like Rachel Podger from other recordings (such as Bach’s Sonatas for Violin and Basso Continuo). This recording caught my interest — not just because of the artist, but also because I have never really studied Vivaldi’s op.9, or listened to many, if any concerto from that collection. So, this promised some fresh experience!
I did watch two YouTube videos about this before ordering. For one, there is an interview “Rachel Podger discusses Vivaldi’s La Cetra” that a person from Challenge Classics performed with the artist. Frankly, I would not even want to link that here: it’s an awful, amateurish interview, both technically as well as artistically (sound, lighting, general video setup, etc.), even though of course Rachel Podger’s responses are all valid and valuable in general.
A Questionable Video Ad
And then, there was a “video” track of the entire set of 12 concerts from these CDs (video no longer available). I put the “video” in quotes, as it was merely 117 minutes of audio track with a single still image. The audio track may actually deter people from buying! It’s heavily overdriven in general volume, bass-laden and distorted to a degree that almost makes the reverberation from a p/solo passage blow one’s ears! It takes a fair bit of abstraction to guess how the recording will sound at the proper volume setting and without alterations in the sound!
I gathered that the recording can’t really be all that awful (attributing all distortions to the uploader and perhaps his/her software — maybe the setting in use was “automatically / continuously adjust the volume to 100% / full load”?), and I gave this recording a go. I did not regret that decision at all!
Vivaldi’s op.9 — The Composition
Vivaldi’s op.3 consists of four concerti each for 1, 2, and 4 violins. In contrast, Vivaldi wrote his op.9 for a single solo instrument only, with the exception of #9 for two violins. This may sound monotonous, but the solo part is certainly more “exotic”, more demanding technically, maybe more advanced within Vivaldi’s oeuvre. Two of the concerti (6 and 12) use scordatura (tuning alterations) on the solo violin, in order to allow for both unusual tonal / chord combinations, as well as different / new sound from new resonance characteristics.
Rachel Podger — Instrument & Interpretation
Rachel Podger plays a very nice violin by Pesarinius (Genova) from 1739 (with baroque bow, of course). The instrument features very natural tone, and Podger’s playing lives throughout this entire recording — very nice! I don’t want to spend too many words describing her art (you should give it a listen yourself!) — but Rachel is an expert in baroque violin playing. It all sounds very natural, not artificial. Rachel Podger does not try avoiding “empty” strings, nor does she overload her part with an excess of vibrato. [One of the dangers of having “great names” perform such music is that they tend to drown the piece in constant, heavy or nervous vibrato. Thos often totally obscures the spirit of this music. Vibrato ought to be used sparingly, to enhance selected notes, to make them stand out in a melody.]
And then there’s the rhythmic aspect: the music lives, has drive, is never boring, and the basso continuo (cello, double bass, lute & chitarrone, harpsichord & organ) lays a solid foundation (and yes, not nearly as dominating as on the YouTube video track!) throughout these concerts, and often rhythm is a vivid as in folkloristic music, with chitarrone & lute being almost percussive (is there even tapping of feet on the floor, at times?). The Holland Baroque Society proves an excellent accompaniment & partner to Rachel Podger in this recording — I love it all!
Finally: the sound of the recording is excellent, transparent, warm, natural. It features a a fair amount of reverberation, but not as overblown as the YouTube recording suggests. That perfectly suits these compositions: these were written to be performed in a baroque church, after all.
I don’t want to issue ratings here (as I don’t have a recording for comparison), but I can only wholeheartedly recommend this recording — and these artists in general!