For years now, Henryk Górecki’s Third Symphony has been at the head of my bucket list of works to hear in concert – and this Prom with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and conductor Osmo Vänskä gave me the chance. An intense composition on a grand scale in terms of length and orchestral forces, the work incorporates texts that centre on relationships between mothers and their children, explored through the eyes of Mary at the crucifixion, Helena Wanda Błazusiakówna (a young prisoner of the Gestapo) and a Silesian folk song in which a mother yearns and mourns for her missing son.

Osmo Vänskä © Greg Helgeson
Osmo Vänskä
© Greg Helgeson

Whilst the work is simple and slow, it does not play itself, and requires a fine balance between allowing the notes to speak and mixing in one’s own nuances and inflections to take the music off the page. This is particularly true of the outer two movements: if their slowly evolving cumulative structures are simply left to unfold then it can sound as though the cogs have merely been left to turn. To me, tonight’s performance struck a very touching equilibrium. For example, the individual string parts in the opening canon offered the occasional swell and even a touch of rubato in the quavers. The second movement was taken with a free-flowing tempo that came as a pleasant surprise, both at the outset and within the ebbs and flows that lead towards the first high point of the movement. Vänskä also applied very evocative crescendi between the different sections of the third movement, underpinning Górecki’s simple but allusive setting of the words and the mother’s cumulating anguish and final acceptance (Górecki’s final “warning” verse notwithstanding). The violin sections were perhaps a little too attentive to their crotchets in the canon of the first movement, however, as each not seemed imbued with slightly too much significance which slightly disrupted the overall sense of line. It also felt that, at times, the orchestra were holding back unnecessarily and I would have, for example, enjoyed a more eruptive climax at the very end of Ruby Hughes’ solo in the first movement (even if it had swallowed her voice whole). It is an incredibly significant moment in the work as it offers the only real release of tension in the entire first half-hour.

Within each movement Hughes’ voice carried the highest registers of her lines with a crystal-clear and soaring quality that, at times, gave me goosebumps. This was most apparent in the second movement, in which her voice noticeably blossomed at the first peak, to the words “support me always”. And whilst she also had something of the dark quality asked for by Eastern European languages, at the same time her strong high notes unfortunately emphasised her need to strengthen the notes in the lower register of her voice.

After discovering Vaughan Williams’ agonizingly tender Four Last Songs earlier this year I was keen to hear Anthony Payne’s adaptation of the original piano score for the orchestral palette. Written for forces far smaller than those required by the Górecki or Tchaikovsky symphonies on the programme, a sense of intimacy was still retained. The mixture of Vaughan Williams’ pastoral style and Payne’s orchestration combined beautifully and it was very reflective of the late composer’s own orchestral soundworld. Whilst there were times when the orchestra naturally enhanced the work – for example, offering clarity to certain contrapuntal lines and in creating a tangible impression of sea spray in the fourth song – this was inevitably at the expense of the heart-to-heart intimacy of the piano original. Nevertheless, I do hope that this arrangement is recorded in the future with Jennifer Johnston at the forefront: she sang the set both beautifully and with refinement. I would have preferred a slightly slower tempo in “Tired”, but this is only my preference.

It was during Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony that both the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Vänskä seemed to feel most at home. The furious speeds of the first movement seemed like child’s play, such as the dovetailing between the strings and winds, their feather-light articulation and the fast, quiet lower string figurations that crackled beneath the rest of the orchestra. The overall sense of flow from one section to the next was superbly managed by all, the notes at either side of any intervening silences joined as if by an invisible thread. This said, some of the orchestra seemed to be holding back a little at the start of the third movement, playing on the back of the beat which resulted in a little uncertainty between sections.

Vänskä cleverly anticipated premature applause between the third and fourth movements by throwing in an attacca transition, which also served to set in relief the unusual structure of the work – a slow, minor key movement to conclude. Operatic in its rhetorical gestures and grief-stricken in even the major-key moments, the orchestra squeezed this out, particularly the raw and woody strings.

On the surface, the programme for Prom 71 might have seemed deeply melancholy, but in reality this was far from the truth. The evening was ultimately uplifting and the music, whilst introspective at its roots, reached out to the audience in a thoroughly outward-looking way.

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