It is only fitting that on Sorrow, groundbreaking, multi-instrumentalist, composer, and improviser Colin Stetson should “reimagine” Henryk Górecki‘s Symphony No. 3 (“Symphony of Sorrowful Songs”). Górecki‘s work is itself a “reimagining” of medieval modalism, one that doesn’t strictly adhere to its compositional formulae.
Written in the seventies, it signaled Górecki‘s hard break with serialism. Instead, he composed a minimally harmonic work in three slow, repetitive movements accompanying texts whose themes were loss and grief. The first is a folk lament from Mary the mother of Jesus witnessing his death; the second is a note from a teenage girl to her mother that was scrawled on the wall of a concentration camp prison; the last comes from a folk song, portraying a mother calling out to her lost son killed during the Silesian Uprisings. The 1992 version recorded by conductor David Zinman with soprano Dawn Upshaw is one of the best-selling classical recordings of all time.
Stetson doesn’t change Górecki‘s notation, but he changes the orchestration and tonal palette considerably. Originally written for a 60-piece orchestra, Stetson‘s 12-player ensemble includes violin, cellos, electric guitars, drums, keyboards, reeds, and mezzo-soprano (Megan Stetson, his sister). In altering the arrangements and instrumentation, he radically shifts the textural, dynamic, and harmonic pillars of Górecki‘s composition. They underscore its core and uncover a cavernous well of sounds, unsettling, even overwhelming emotions, and a heightened sense impressions.
At over 28 minutes, the first movement is longer than the other two combined. Its simple melody commences with a hushed solo baritone saxophone — with fingerwork and breathing audible — followed by more horns, cellos, violin, reeds, synths, tremolo-picked electric guitars, flailing cymbals, and kick drums. A black metal squall ensues and then suddenly vanishes. The lyric restatement introduces Megan Stetson. Her singing is physical, she inhabits the ensemble, articulating the words rather than soaring above them. (Her emotional depth recalls the 1978 debut recording that featured Polish soprano Stefania Woytowicz.) The second movement emerges more gently with strings at the fore. Before long, it becomes a dirge, an elegy the mezzo claims as the rumbling center. The music retreats back toward folk melody briefly, but propulsive tribal rhythms drive the ensemble painted by swarming blurs of electronics; the mezzo rises to respond. In the final movement, trebly, strummed black metal guitars, doom-laden processional drums, walls of noise, ululating reeds, and electronic drones engulf the listener. Megan Stetson‘s voice is the only element binding the music to earth. But just as crashing cymbals, sweeping strings, cascading keyboards, and circular horns assume the plateau of tension, Megan Stetson‘s singing breaks it wide open; her voice transforms the entire swell into a spiritually resonant, redemptive acceptance of, and answer to, inconsolable grief.
Sorrow is a radical, challenging reinterpretation of Górecki‘s symphony, but it is also an accessible one. Stetson and his ensemble deliver a musically diverse, acute, deep reading that underlines its intention as an extended, focused, powerful, and utterly beautiful meditation on unspeakable loss.