Simplicity is beautiful. The one year anniversary of Polish composer Henryk Mikolaj Górecki’s death could not have been greeted with more of a celebration of his life than through the Polish Radio Choir’s UK tour of his choral works. Who better to pay their respects than the Polish Radio Choir who premiered several of his pieces and worked with him for many years? Conductor Artur Sędzielarz acted as absolute master, demonstrating excellent musicianship and understanding of Górecki’s music. Under his hand the twenty-nine voices of the choir did not tire, nor did they fail to amaze the audience by mastering the dynamic contrast, stamina and energy required for the challenging programme. Despite a huge amount of repetition in Górecki’s compositional style, there was not a dull moment and the audience in St George’s, Bristol, were left wanting more. Henryk Górecki (1933-2010) established his monumental style of simplicity in the Seventies with such pieces as the famous Symphony of Sorrowful Songs (1976). The programme displayed a variety of his choral works, opening with the moving Totus Tuus (1987) and closing with an outstanding and very emotional performance of Amen (1975) - all different but all very, for want of a better word, Górecki.

Henryk Mikolaj Górecki © Studio magazine/ Lech Kowalski & Wlodzimierz Pniewski
Henryk Mikolaj Górecki
© Studio magazine/ Lech Kowalski & Wlodzimierz Pniewski

After the pitches of the first piece were sung discreetly by a member of the choir, the first chord of the Totus Tuus sounded. If there was anyone in the audience with a toupée, it would have blown off. It was an extremely impressive sound with audience members turning around and nudging each other as if to say, ‘Did you hear that?’ The sopranos took control of the melody whilst the alto, tenor and bass provided very basic yet carefully constructed harmony – reminding the audience that simplicity can be totally mind-blowing. There have been previous questions as to whether this piece should be performed outside of the church due to both its Catholic nature and its having been composed for the Pope’s third pilgrimage to his native country, Poland in 1987. After this performance, it is safe to say it should be heard.

Exploring the lowest ranges of a choir, the Song of the Katyń Families (2004) is one of Górecki’s simplest settings, however provided a fair challenge for the choir, who rose to it effortlessly. This performance captured the sombre nature of the Katyń massacre, with pitches so low, they reverberated throughout the audience creating a haunting feeling of oppression and deep empathy between the audience and the sorrow of the Katyń families.

Despite being folksong settings The Five Kurpian Songs still have an overtly sacred, reverential feel to them. The third, Z Torunia ja Parobecek (I am a Farmhand from Toruń) shone most brightly as the choir gave a punctuated and energetic performance. The Polish Radio Choir’s use of accenting gave the piece a rhythmic drive that swept the audience into the music. Górecki delights us with an interesting turn to a major chord at the end of the piece which was unexpected, but certainly helped to create finality to an amazing feat of rhythm and texture. Come Holy Spirit (1988) also provided a spectacular display of choral creativity including seven-part harmony, chromatic shifts and dynamics that resonated through your toes. One of Górecki’s most luminous scores, this piece was the all-seeing-eye of the concert, employing every compositional technique available.

The concert so far had demonstrated Górecki’s incredible ability to paint words with music, bearing similarities to composers such as Schubert, to whom he had always likened himself. Just to appreciate how great this composer was, the choir sung Amen as the final piece and the result was unreservedly beautiful. A single word building in meandering phrases to a huge climax in a major chord, was arguably the climax of the concert. Forming tears in the audiences eyes, the Polish Radio Choir were met with a rapturous applause of stamping feet and standing ovations, which was reciprocated with an encore of only a part of the Totus Tuus, making the Bristolian audience putty in their hands. A truly polished and Polish performance.

****1