Henryk Mikołaj Górecki (1933-2010) has come to be regarded as one of the most important composers of the second half of the twentieth century, significantly due to the astonishing commercial success of his Third Symphony, the Symphony of Sorrowful Songs (1976).
A leading figure in Poland’s avant-garde in the 1960’s to ’70’s, Górecki was inspired by (among others) Webern, Messiaen, Stockhausen, and his compatriot Krzysztof Penderecki (who was just two weeks his senior), although his later work transitioned toward a more tonal approach, the Third Symphony marking an important staging post in that musical metamorphosis.
Boosey & Hawkes, long at the forefront of bringing contemporary piano music to market, have recently issued a new collection of Górecki’s more modest pieces for the instrument. The Piano Album is edited by the composer’s daughter, concert pianist Anna Górecka, and offers a fascinating and approachable snapshot of his evolving art…
Górecki and the Piano
Most of Górecki’s relatively small piano output dates from the 1950’s, a period during which his musical style was yet developing, the composer having largely been blocked from music education as a child.
There are pieces in this eclectic repertoire which dabble with neo-classicism alongside those adhering to a serial dodecaphonic approach, joined by later works in which Górecki’s popular expression of rapt mysticism emerges.
Anna Górecka asks in her Preface to the new collection:
“What did the piano mean to Górecki? I think, ‘piano’ first and foremost meant his mother, whom he lost on the very day of his second birthday. Later, he was not even allowed to touch an upright piano which belonged to her and remained at home after her death. Only when he turned eighteen could he decide to undertake a more formal music education…”
Górecka provides an illuminating and exhaustive overview of the composer’s subsequent piano composing, no doubt bringing the personal insight only available to so close a family member.
We learn of Górecki’s Cztery preludia (Four Preludes) Op.1, and the Piano Sonata Op.6, these remaining his most performed piano pieces and published separately.
We are also introduced to each of his other piano miniatures, which are brought together for this special album:
- Kołysanka op.9 (Lullaby op.9)
Z ptasiego gniazda – Drobne utwory fortepianowe op.9a (From a Bird’s Nest – Nine short piano pieces op.9a):
- Marsz (March)
- Piosenka ludowa (Folk Song)
- Stara melodia (Old Melody)
- Druga piosenka ludowa (Second Folk Song)
- Bagatela (Bagatelle)
- Drugi marsz (Second March)
- Finale a la danse
- Mazurki op.41 (Mazurkas op.41)
Rozne utwory op.52 (Sundry Pieces op.52)
- Recitativo i Mazurek (Recitative and Mazurka)
- Dwa utwory (Two Pieces)
- Trzy utwory dodekafoniczne (Three Dodecaphonic Pieces)
- Quasi valse
- Intermezzo – Andenken an Poul Rovsing Olsen
- Moment musical
- Dla Anny (For Anna)
The book itself is tastefully and well presented, the plain cover opening to 32 pages printed on off-white paper. Górecki’s helpful Preface appears in English with German and French transitions.
The music is spaciously and well engraved. Although many of the pieces could be suited to educational use, none includes fingering or editorial input. It is striking that the composer often includes but minimal performance indications; the Mazurki includes no dynamics at all.
Exploring the Music
Opening the collection, Kołysanka op.9 is a lullaby that combines folk-like melodies with biting dissonance, exploring and developing its ideas as a contrapuntal four-part texture. Technically it would suit an intermediate player (around UK Grade 4-5) but often requires the redistribution of notes between hands; following the score as presented involves large stretches.
The nine pieces From a Bird’s Nest are short miniatures more appropriate for the late elementary to early intermediate player (around UK Grades 2-3), making them technically the easiest works here. These are interesting and evocative compositions which could appeal to more adventurous learners, and could perhaps even find their way into the exam syllabus.
The remaining pieces in this collection are much more challenging. Mazurki Op.41 is a single movement work; though evoking the national dance it is named after, it is rhythmically unsettled and includes frequent time signature changes. Six pages long, but not especially difficult, the composer suggested it should last nine minutes in performance.
The Sundry Pieces Op.52 are a collection of sundry early works, revised and brought together for publication much later in the composer’s life. All are modernist in tone, some using serial technique.
The Intermezzo of 1990 must be singled out as a highlight of the collection, not least because it has begun to find a place in the performing repertoire. Appropriate for players at around Grade 5 level, it is a fine example of the composer’s later style, and likely to particularly appeal to fans of the Third Symphony who invest in this collection.
The music in this Piano Album is certainly of considerable interest, and surely deserves a permanent ongoing place in the repertoire.
It must be noted however that these are predominantly short pieces written for incidental and educational use. As such, it is perhaps not ideal that the book includes music that traverses such a wide range of levels (from elementary to advanced) and styles (from jokey children’s pieces to more meditative, fundamentally adult reflections).
The matter is compounded by the asking price (£29.99 at time of review), which for a book of 32 pages and potentially limited use may well discourage student and parental investment, deterring wide uptake.
When reviewing any publication, one of my priorities is to consider who it will appeal to; the Górecki Piano Album will attract those with a particular interest in exploring this composer’s lesser-known piano works, as well as educators interested in expanding 20th-century repertoire awareness and options.
This is an important publication, and one that I can warmly recommend.
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