Beth Gibbons is not one for taking the easy option, nor the expected. When the world was anticipating a long and fruitful career for Portishead off the back of three incredible albums, she decamped to work with Talk Talk bassist Paul Webb on the Rustin Man album Out Of Season, while also writing scores for two French films.
Then, when Portishead were playing in Kraków in 2013, the gig’s promoter Filip Berkowicz observed her potential for a role as the soprano soloist in Henryck Górecki’s Symphony No 3. The hour-long work, subtitled Symphony Of Sorrowful Songs, proved an unexpected hit in and outside of classical circles in the early 1990s, thanks largely to an intense recording from Dawn Upshaw and the London Sinfonietta selling upwards of one million units. It proved one of those pieces suitable both for Classic FM and for Late Junction, tugging at the heartstrings but also giving life enhancing power if heard in full.
Gibbons, with no previous expertise in this area and certainly no previous use of Polish in a performing capacity, set out to learn and conquer the solo part and its language. No stone was left unturned in her scrutiny, but all through her work the principle was to aim for emotional impact above technique.
All the work came to a head in 2014, when Gibbons shared a concert programme with music by Radiohead‘s Jonny Greenwood, The National‘s Bryce Dessner and the Polish greats Lutosławski and Krzysztof Penderecki, whose Threnody For The Victims Of Hiroshima has made a similarly powerful impact from a classical base. Penderecki it was who conducted the Górecki performance, and if you examine online footage from rehearsals and the live performance, you get an idea of the totality of their investment.
It has paid off handsomely, for this is a striking and intensely moving partnership and recording. Aside from Gibbons’ heartfelt contribution the orchestra respond superbly to Penderecki’s direction, which could hardly be more idiomatic. The long, slow introduction from the double basses feels like the breathing of a huge animal with a very slow resting heartbeat. Gradually the tension builds as the pitch of the music ascends, all the time aiming for the point where Gibbons first appears.
The impact is one of lasting strength. The voice, naturally a contralto, strains a little as it reaches for the higher notes. This is deliberately managed, for Gibbons uses it to convey maximum emotion, using more vibrato as she reaches the higher notes. In her more natural range she floats beautifully over the strings, who respond in kind. This is very much a performance where orchestra and soprano are as one, reinforced by the close attention of the woodwind to the vocal line in the second of the three movements.
The intensity is often foreboding – and rightly so, for this is not and should not be easy listening. Gibbons and Penderecki command otherwise. The climax of the first movement is all-encompassing, as is the solace of the third when Górecki first secures a magical transformation from minor to major key.
The performance lasts just over 50 minutes, using quicker tempo choices than the famous Upshaw and Atherton recording, but achieving comparable heights of feeling. Gibbons and Penderecki capture the huge span of the work, keeping each of the three movements in context of the overall piece, and mastering Górecki’s deceptively simple yet far-reaching methods of delivery.
This is a special document indeed, one that reinforces the power of music to communicate on its own raw terms – and one that is wonderfully packaged by Domino, dressing it up like a well-worn piece of classical vinyl. Gibbons and Penderecki deserve enormous credit for their approach, which is at once determinedly studied but also gloriously instinctive, Gibbons getting to the very heart of the music and the way it is made with her whole heart.