MUSIC REVIEW Michael White Górecki, Glass and Turnage
Suffering sometimes seems to be a natural condition of the Polish people, and they certainly get more than their share of it. This year, the Chopin bicentenary, was meant to be a year of cultural celebration for them, marked in Britain by a whole catalogue of major music projects under the inclusive title Polska! But recent events have cast a cloud over all that. And in a comparatively small but still significant way, Polska’s problems increased last week when the muchanticipated world premiere of Henryk Górecki’s Fourth Symphony failed to happen.
Commissioned by the London Philharmonic Orchestra for unveiling at the South Bank, its significance was that we’ve been waiting so long for a successor to the celebrated Górecki Third that Classic FM plays to death. In fact, Classic FM caught on rather late to the relaxing virtues of the Third. It was written back in 1977. And although Classic habitually claims anything that moves slowly as a relaxant, the truth is that the Third’s three Lento-marked movements are nothing of the sort.
They’re an expression of intense pain – as we had the chance to reexperience in this concert, which filled the gap that should have been the brand new symphony (Górecki had been ill and couldn’t finish it in time) with a performance of this old one played in tribute to the victims of the Polish air disaster.
I can’t pretend it was more than a functional performance; and Joanna Wos, the soprano soloist, had nothing like the striking freshness of Dawn Upshaw on the famous recording. But as Ms Wos had just endured a heroic 19-hour cab ride from Warsaw to be with us, courtesy of volcanic ash, that’s probably forgiveable. And there’s no denying how moved the audience were by the associative context. Not for nothing is Górecki’s Third subtitled “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs”.
Without the promised Fourth, the nice idea of this concert as a programme of nothing but premieres was lost. But at least we had two pieces that qualified. And at least one of them was interesting.
The interest was Texan Tenebrae by Mark-Anthony Turnage: a short orchestral work based on ideas-inprogress from the opera he’s writing for Covent Garden next year, and functioning as the sort of satellite score composers often use as a receptacle for extra material when they’re working on a large-scale stage work. Glamorous, gaudy, streetwise as so much of Turnage is, it had immediate appeal and was well handled by conductor Marin Alsop. But that’s where the interest ended.
The other novelty on the programme was the British premiere of Philip Glass’s Second Violin Concerto, which turned out to be no different to the First: a waste of space and time.
Not being a fan of Philip Glass, I find listening to his work about as rewarding as chewing gum that’s lost its flavour – and they’re not dissimilar activites. But this new concerto is unmitigated trash: the usual strungout sequences of arpeggiated banality, driven by the rise and fall of fastmoving but still leaden triplets, vacuously formulaic. And in this case the offence is even worse for the portentous title the piece carries.
Glass calls it The American Four Seasons – with, you’ll note, the definite article: not just “a” but “the”. In truth, there are some correspondences of texture, mood and structure that support this naming, to a point. But Philip Glass is no Vivaldi, a composer who even at his most wallpaper baroque still has something to say. Glass has nothing – though he clearly deludes himself into thinking he does: hence the preponderance of slow, reflective solo writing in the piece which assumes there’s something to reflect on.
An American violinist called Robert McDuffie played the solos with all the dignity he could muster (he’s tall, plays in a business suit, looks like a senior vice-president at Goldman Sachs: it helps), but you couldn’t attribute any distinction to what he did. The tone was scrawny, intonation suspect. And pondering the fact that the LPO had co-commissioned the piece, I could only wonder why.