Henryk Górecki: Symphony No 3 review – minimalism made human | John Lewis's contemporary album of the month

Gibbons/Polish National Radio Symphony Orch/Penderecki (Domino)
The Portishead singer is not a trained soprano but her wracked style brings out the work’s eerie desperation

The Third Symphony by the cult Polish composer Henryk Górecki is one of the rare success stories in the world of contemporary orchestral music. Largely ignored or dismissed after its 1976 debut, it was revived by the Nonesuch label in 1992 and became a surprise hit, shifting more than a million copies and becoming the standard-bearer for a genre dubbed “holy minimalism”. The second movement in particular was used on adverts, TV trails and film soundtracks and was a regular fixture on the newly launched Classic FM.

Henryk Górecki: Symphony No 3 album artwork
Henryk Górecki: Symphony No 3 album artwork Photograph: PR

Every recording of this symphony until now has featured a pure, operatic soprano voice, with Stefania Woytowicz, Dawn Upshaw, Zofia Kilanowicz, Christine Brewer and Susan Gritton all playing starring roles. Even when avant-garde saxophonist Colin Stetson released his post-rock reimagining in 2016 – which added layers of distorted guitars, baritone sax drones and sludge rock beats to the orchestral arrangements – the vocal was provided by his sister Megan Stetson, a trained mezzo-soprano.

So Portishead’s Beth Gibbons makes an unusual addition to the Górecki hall of fame. Her wracked, whispery voice – pitched somewhere between Billie Holiday and Shirley Collins – seems about as far as one can get from the disciplined world of the opera singer, a world of precise diction, intense volume and Olympian levels of breath control.

Gibbons is less effective when trying to imitate those operatic tropes: her vibrato sounds uncomfortable and uncontrolled, particularly on the first movement, and it doesn’t help that she is a contralto trying to sing in a soprano range. But her artless, almost conversational approach brings indefinably human characteristics to the work. Her range is particularly suited to the lower setting of the second movement (based on a prayer that had been inscribed on the wall of a Gestapo cell in the second world war). The third movement is pitched a little too high for Gibbons but her frailties seem to mirror the quiet desperation of the lyric (apparently based on a Silesian folk song, sung from the point of view of a mother searching for her murdered son). Where previous versions have been eerily transcendent, Gibbons’s quiet, demotic vulnerability makes this both more harrowing and emotionally engaging.

Also out this month

Hania Rani is a Berlin-based Polish pianist whose debut solo album, Esja (out 5 April) is made up of intense but melodically simple solo piano miniatures, which sound like acoustic versions of techno anthems. An even more effective exploration of this territory comes from British pianist Taz Modi; best known for his work in various jazz and funk ensembles, his solo debut Reclaimed Goods features a host of introspective instrumentals that are reminiscent, variously, of Ryuichi Sakamoto (Libra), Nils Frahm (Time to Practise, Crystalline) and Hauschka (Ethical Tourist). Completely sui generis is the eponymously titled debut album from Kolida Babo (released 5 April), a series of folk-inspired duets between two virtuosi of the Armenian duduk, backed by ghostly electronic drones and Armenian percussion.

Contributor

John Lewis

The GuardianTramp

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