Henryk Gorecki’s third symphony has enjoyed an extraordinary popularity over the last decade or so, with a pioneering recording from Dawn Upshaw that has made upwards of a million sales, an extremely impressive achievement for a classical CD. Despite that, this late night Prom marked its first visit to the festival, appropriately timed to coincide with the sixtieth anniversary of the end of the Second World War.
Composed in 1976, it therefore predates much of Arvo Part’s holy minimalism’ output, although it was scarcely performed at the time. One of the symphony’s few advocates was David Atherton, and tonight he seemed to make the barest of interventions from the podium, barely moving at the start as the double basses processed out of the depths with steady tread. As the intensity grew so the conductor became more animated, and as the instrumental layers stacked up Susan Bullock made her first entry, a powerful voice that struck a deep chord with the sizeable audience. Compared to Upshaw’s innocence her fuller voice took a while to come to terms with, and in particular its broad vibrato at crucial moments in the first song, which dates after all from the 15th century.
The soprano really came into her own in the famous second movement, which drew looks of “where have I heard that before?” from some of the audience. Removed from TV programmes and adverts to its original context, this section was profound and intensely moving, Bullock getting right inside the text. The adolescent’s plea was gracefully supported by Atherton, conducting on in silence for a few bars after the music had subsided.
This he did again in the spine tingling third movement, the most substantial text setting that once again drew sympathy from Bullock, now fully into her role. She captured the folk origins of the song perfectly from the outset, and finished radiantly, the coda again capturing the timeless feel of Gorecki’s music.
The orchestra have picked up rave reviews under Ilan Volkov, and were nothing less than excellent here for David Atherton, in particular the double basses, whose bow control stood out. Balancing the piano chords was tricky but worked most of the time, and even the brass, who had little to do, fully immersed themselves in the piece with heads bowed. A performance low on schmaltz, and high on raw emotion.