Composed more than 40 years ago, Henryk Górecki’s Symphony No. 3, Op. 36, better known colloquially as the “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs,” is at its heart a wholly emotional, fully immersive listening experience. While there are discernible motifs spread throughout the piece’s three movements, the bulk of the work centers on music’s ability to bring out emotions through the use of tempo and dynamics. And while there are several vocal passages in each of the three movements explicitly dealing with sorrow, they would not be nearly as effective were it not for the stunning instrumental backing.

Basing the work in the folk music tradition of his native Poland, Górecki managed to tap into the deep-seated sadness inherent in his homeland post-WWII. By combining these folk melodies with religious themes, Górecki managed to show his deeply spiritual side. Far from a strictly religious work, his approach stemmed from a modernist, secular standpoint. It helped him cut through any sort of religious or cultural stigma to create a vital, near-universally relevant work.

Opening movement “Lento—Sostenuto tranquillo ma cantabile” builds from a low, rumbling whisper to a harsh cacophony and back several times over the course of its nearly 30-minute performance time. This series of sonic peaks and valleys function as a sort of emotional rollercoaster. They outline the inward and outwardly manifested progression of sorrow from a gentle, almost wordless nagging to a full-blown breakdown. And though each of the two subsequent movements retain a lento tempo and decidedly minor key feel, their approach to emotionality through music is more traditional: They use melodic themes and more recognizable harmonies to convey feelings of sorrow as opposed to the visceral noise of the symphony’s first movement.

The third movement in particular features a lyrical theme that has been used time and again since the symphony’s rise to popularity in the early-1990s. In 1992, a recording of Symphony No. 3 featuring soprano Dawn Upshaw and the London Sinfonietta sold over a million copies and found its way not only onto the classical charts, but the lower rungs of the pop charts as well. Given this, Górecki’s symphony is prime source material for performers looking to reach a wide audience.

By granting the work the “reimagining” tag, avant garde composer and saxophonist Colin Stetson opens the realm of possibilities for how the well-known work could be interpreted. And while the end result is as breathtaking and thrilling as those familiar with Stetson’s work would come to expect, the “reimagining” in the title proves to be somewhat of a mislead for those expecting a drastic reconfiguration of the original. The largest and most obvious deviation from the original score is in the instrumentation. Rather than employing a full orchestra, Stetson reconfigures the arrangement for a 12-piece group, fronted by his inimitable baritone saxophone, assorted rock instrumentation, a small string section and his sister, mezzo-soprano vocalist Megan Stetson. The result follows the score in structure and feel if not entirely in sound.

But it’s this change that affords Sorrow: A Reimagining of Górecki’s 3rd Symphony a certain emotional heft that goes beyond that of Górecki’s original score. By limiting the number of performers, the emotionality of the piece rises directly to the surface. Beginning with Stetson’s own baritone saxophone replicating the low, brooding swells of the orchestral score, he fills the empty spaces with the startlingly intimate sound of his fingers on the keys and inhalations. In Stetson’s hands, Górecki’s work takes on an even more urgent, emotionally wrought tone—one that brings the palpable themes of sorrow to the fore.

Itself a reimagining of Polish folk melodies and 15th Century religious themes, Górecki’s original composition places these ancient, universal sentiments within a modern framework. Stetson’s own reimagining of these reimaginings adds an additional meta layer of sorts, finding yet another way to place these gorgeous motifs within a still more modern context. In this, Sorrow often sounds more like the work of a great avant garde post-rock group than that of a classical or even straight avant garde ensemble.

Stetson succeeds beyond expectations here. If classical music is to survive for future generations, it will require such revitalizations in order to appeal to those brought up more on popular music than the strict classics. Reconfigured to match and exceed the expectations of contemporary listeners, this approach helps keep them engaged with and enamored of the music. That Stetson manages to do so under the guise of the avant garde is even more impressive, given the accessibility of the performance. A full drum kit, guitar, synths and Stetson’s series of overtones and circular breathing all inform Sorrow and form the backdrop against which Megan can show off her impressive range, particularly on the second and third movements. If this is modern classical music reimagined for a younger audience, it would behoove the current keepers of the classical flame to take note: Sorrow: A Reimagining of Górecki’s 3rd Symphony is an incomparable masterpiece.

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One Comment

  1. jack

    May 10, 2016 at 6:35 pm

    this is not my modern context. forcing Gorecki’s work into the fascist conventions of popular music drum beats is an abusive appropriation and theft. write your own music.


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