Symphony No. 3, Op. 36 ("Symphony of Sorrowful Songs")
Part of a remarkable 2014 project that united some of the greatest works by Polish composers with some of alternative music's most prominent artists, Portishead's Beth Gibbons joined the the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra and conductor Krzysztof Penderecki in a performance of Henryk Górecki: Symphony No. 3 Symphony of Sorrowful Songs. Though the symphony initially received a mixed response when it premiered in 1976 because it departed from the atonal avant-garde style of Górecki's previous work, it ultimately became one of the most popular classical works in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Given its history as a maverick artistic move, choosing someone other than a classically trained vocalist to perform the piece feels like a creative nod to its origins. To sing a part interpreted by great sopranos such as Dawn Upshaw, whose 1992 recording of the symphony with conductor David Zinman and the London Sinfonietta sold over a million copies, Gibbons worked with vocal coaches to master singing in Polish in a sustained soprano register (she's naturally a contralto). Her commitment pays off in a performance that is authentic to the spirit of the work and her own music. "Symphony No. 3"'s slow, meditative compositions convey the profound grief of separated mothers and children, making Gibbons an inspired choice to approach the work from a different perspective. Over the years, the world-weariness and tremulous clarity of her voice have been a major part of Portishead's power and on albums such as Out of Season, her 2002 collaboration with former Talk Talk bassist Paul Webb. Throughout Henryk Górecki: Symphony No. 3 Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, she honors the work's humanity as well as its technical beauty. The effort to stay in her upper register subtly colors her performance, imbuing it with intensity and fragility. Though her voice is woven more sparingly into the symphony's first movement, "Lento -- Sostenuto tranquillo ma cantabile" (which is based on a 15th century folk song that portrays the Virgin Mary singing to Jesus as he dies on the cross), it's no less powerful than when she plays a more prominent role later in the work. On the second movement, "Lento e largo -- Tranquillissimo" (which was inspired by the words scratched into the walls of a German Gestapo prison by an 18-year-old girl), Gibbons' stunning high notes and vibrato add to its aching beauty. As the symphony closes with its third movement, "Lento -- Cantabile-semplice" (in which a mother searches and grieves for a son lost in battle), her performance takes listeners on an emotional journey that ranges from worry to poignant acknowledgment. As different as it is from anything else in her body of work, Henryk Górecki: Symphony No. 3 Symphony of Sorrowful Songs is an affecting example of Gibbons' willingness to take her music in unexpected -- but ultimately winning -- directions.