One hundred years (and one hour) after the end of the Great War in 1918, the London Sinfonietta commemorated the Armistice with this concert. That, and the centenary of Polish independence, gave this concert its subtitle of “100 years: Freedom and Remembrance”.

Elizabeth Atherton © Kiran Ridley
Elizabeth Atherton
© Kiran Ridley

Poland also provided the composers, the first being Krzysztof Penderecki, the UK première of whose specially commissioned Fanfare launched the concert. It was more a flourish than a fanfare, perhaps, brief, breezy and jubilant. It was being given today also in several Polish cities, as well as Chicago and London. At the very least it gave the brass players something to play ahead of a long stretch watching their string colleagues dominate the 52-minute main item.

Górecki’s Third Symphony, his “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs”, was composed in 1976, but its phenomenal career began in 1992, when today’s artists, the London Sinfonietta under David Atherton, recorded it with soprano Dawn Upshaw. That disc had astonishing success, in part because BBC’s Radio 3 was just being challenged by a new commercial station, Classic FM. It was largely thanks to to their advocacy (at least of the short middle movement) that the disc went to the top of the classical charts, and even into the pop ones, eventually selling over one million copies. This in turn led to a cultural spat between those who celebrated the fact that an initially avant-garde contemporary composer could write something so accessible, and those who heard only the betrayal of their notions of modernist artistic integrity. Those notions did not include what would come to be called “holy minimalism”; a slow pulse, a quiet demeanour, hypnotic repetitions, and a spiritual atmosphere.

That dispute matters little now, since the work has a unique quality that has enabled it to survive both its fame and its notoriety. It has no particular association with the 1914-18 war, but perhaps it is assuming a commemorative role in Europe of the sort that Barber’s Adagio, which had no relation to any events, now plays in America. Górecki’s Third is certainly concerned with severance and loss through war or other means, and especially of parent and child. Its three movements set three Polish texts, from a 15th-century lament of Mary, mother of Jesus, to an 18-year-old woman’s inscription on the wall of a Polish Gestapo cell from the Second World War, and a Silesian folk song expressing a mother’s grief during the Silesian uprisings of 1919–1921. These are given to a soprano solo, on this occasion the conductor’s daughter, Elizabeth Atherton.

The haunting first movement as is long as the next two combined, and begins with a long melody growling in the depths of the double basses, as if the music is struggling to be born from the earth itself. It ascends through the registers as the other string sections, cellos, violas, then violins, gradually enter in canon, building an eight-part threnody that is both lamentation and consolation. The Sinfonietta strings were immaculate, and David Atherton’s pacing and balance enabled each strand to be heard even when the texture was at its most complex. At the sonorous peak of this great arch, the voice enters with Mary addressing the dying Jesus. Elizabeth Atherton’s lustrous soprano conveyed both pathos and dignity, and had the power to match the brass-capped climax when it arrived. The canon then returned, reversing the sequence until ending deep in the basses whence it had emerged half-an-hour before. Everyone needed a pause after that.

If Górecki’s work has a weakness, it is that neither of the subsequent movements can quite match the cumulative eloquence of this majestic opening utterance. But there was plenty to savour in the two following songs, especially Elizabeth Atherton’s infinitely touching delivery of them. She sang with a keening intensity, helped by just enough vibrato to suggest the throb of pain but never becoming an unwelcome ‘beat’ in the voice, and with expert control of the longer-breathed lines. If she does not quite have the chest register for the lowest passages that open the second movement, her tone still managed to give a voice to every grieving mother and child. David Atherton steered the progress of the music as astutely as when he made that famous disc, and the orchestra he co-founded responded magnificently. So did the audience.

On such an occasion perhaps the music and its performance matter less than the communal act of remembrance. But it as well to be reminded that while our history is littered with the appalling destruction of life, even of a generation, we can also still make music, the most consoling art we possess.