On 11th November 1918, Poland returned to the map of Europe as an independent nation. To mark the centenary of that event, this past Sunday one hundred Polish compositions were performed on 11 stages at some of the finest concert halls in Poland and abroad. One of the concerts took place in Szczecin – home of the award-winning Szczecin Philharmonic Orchestra.

Elzbieta Szmytka, Wojciech Michniewski and the Szczecin Philharmonic Orchestra © Marcin Zaborowski Photography
Elzbieta Szmytka, Wojciech Michniewski and the Szczecin Philharmonic Orchestra
© Marcin Zaborowski Photography

For seven days prior to 11th November, Polish compositions resounded throughout the city’s Sun Hall, culminating with the performance of Henryk Mikołaj Górecki's Symphony no. 3, also known as the “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs”. The performance by the Szczecin Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of Wojciech Michniewski, a rising star among Polish conductors, was greatly enhanced by world renown Polish soprano, Elżbieta Szmytka.

The choice of the Third Symphony is hardly a coincidence, for it is one of the most recognisable pieces of Polish music to emerge from the second half of the 20th century. Initially criticised for being too simplistic and pop-like, it has come to be accepted as an integral part of Polish musical culture thanks to the sudden fame it gained in 1992, when a recording with American soprano Dawn Upshaw released by Elektra Records topped the British classical charts.

The piece, composed in 1976, contributes to the genre of minimalist music, hence its repetitiveness and simplicity. Drawing inspiration from Polish folk music and the cult of the Virgin Mary, it is made up of three parts, each containing a different Polish lyrical piece to be sung by a soprano. A message written by a young girl imprisoned by the Gestapo during World War 2 appears in the second movement. As a result, the symphony is often associated with the Holocaust. However, as Górecki himself admitted, its focus is rather on the separation between a mother and her child. For the first and the third movements, the composer chose texts written from the perspective of a mother who lost her child, while in the middle movement, he used one portraying a girl separated from her mother.

Elzbieta Szmytka and the Szczecin Philharmonic Orchestra © Marcin Zaborowski Photography
Elzbieta Szmytka and the Szczecin Philharmonic Orchestra
© Marcin Zaborowski Photography

The performance began with something of a surprise – the Fanfare for orchestra written by Krzysztof Penderecki especially for this occasion. It was a very short piece played entirely on wind and brass instruments, and it definitely added to the uniqueness of the event.

After the fanfare, it was time for Górecki's symphony to shine on this festive day. The double basses started quietly and somewhat hesitantly. However, from the first strains one could recognise the exceptionally fine acoustics of the Sun Hall. A simple canon based on a Polish folk melody continued for a long time with more instruments joining, becoming louder, exuding a trance-like quality. Then, the melody turned soft allowing Szmytka to intone in a truly sublime voice a “Lament of the Virgin Mary” from the 15th century. With the end of the vocal part, the orchestra shone through again and closed the first part with a long diminuendo.

The second movement opened with a bright, simple melody reflective of the mountains. Very soon, the sound of the strings became darker, preparing the listeners for the heart-piercingly sorrowful soprano part. Szmytka opened with the line “Mother, don't cry...” sung quietly, as if drowned out by the orchestra, exactly the effect Górecki wished to achieve. The libretto, expressing despair of a girl imprisoned during World War 2, combined with Szmytka’s subtle delivery, was the most heart-wrenching moment of the performance. It was not, however, as expressive as other performances of this piece.

Based on another Polish folk melody, the third movement was introduced by the pulsating of strings including a harp. Szmytka was at her best here, expressing the sorrow of a mother who lost her son in the Silesian Uprising. The orchestra showed off its ability to operate with tone colour and presented the audience with what can best be described as a clean finish.

This particular performance of the Symphony of Sorrowful Songs was entirely special. The occasion, the hall, the performers – all combined to create the atmosphere of a once-in-a-lifetime celebration. It was hardly a surprise when the event concluded with long and thunderous applause.