What a rare treat it was to see a rare all-Henryk Gorecki performance last night at le Poisson Rouge, a tribute concert held on the first anniversary of the great Polish composer’s death. The club hasn’t been so packed, at least for music, since last year’s Winter Jazz Festival. This time, courtesy of the Polish Cultural Institute, the standing-room crowd got to witness intense, haunting versions of Gorecki’s String Quartet No. 2, played by the JACK Quartet, as well as the Kleines Requiem für Eine Polka, Op. 66 by Ensemble Signal conducted by Brad Lubman.
Both pieces date from a couple of years before the recording of Gorecki’s Symphony #3 by the London Sinfonietta with Dawn Upshaw went platinum in the UK, and then became a worldwide sensation back in the early 90s. In a lengthy interview before the concert with one of the club’s personnel, the head of Nonesuch Records admitted that he’d made a “good deal” with the performers on that album, paying them only as musicians for hire, with no royalties. To his credit, when sales exploded – its status as the bestselling album of alltime featuring work by a living composer has yet to be surpassed- he cut both Gorecki and the musicians in on the deal. Gorecki was supposedly so flabbergasted that he carried his first royalty check around with him for a couple of years before he cashed it. The label head also noted insightfully how 1933 in Poland was auspicious for artists: not only Gorecki but also Jerzy Kosinski and Roman Polanski were born that year. And for all three, the defining moment seems to be their survival of Hitler’s terror, which may be one explanation for the enduring popularity of Gorecki’s plaintive, otherworldly music.
Both works contrast lush, hypnotic atmospherics with jarring, terrified passages, the String Quartet the more dramatic and intense of the two. Like the work of another chronicler of that era’s terror, Shostakovich, there are passages in both pieces that mock pageantry and bombast, and also the lockstep conformity of fascism (having also survived the Polish communist regime, Gorecki may also had that in mind when he wrote these). Despite some difficult operating conditions – the club had turned the air conditioning virtually all the way off, making it oppressively hot – the JACK Quartet turned in a raw, powerfully plaintive performance. Brooding and then somewhat warmer atmospherics quickly gave way to shocked, horrified staccato passages anchored by a cello pedal note; the second movement gave the ensemble a platform to grimly and inexorably build to an insistent crescendo of microtones, as Christopher Otto and Ari Streisfeld’s violins played starkly rhythmic harmonics against the menacing low notes of Kevin McFarland’s cello and John Pickford Richards’ viola. The melodies here don’t move around much: it’s all about dynamics, and foreshadowing, and frantic, horror-stricken panic, and the quartet vividly portayed each as it appeared.
Lubman led Ensemble Signal through the little requiem for a polka with dexterity and great respect for its spaciously minimalist architecture: the silences between the bells and piano in the opening movement, and the jarring increases in distance between string motifs later on, are very tricky rhythmically, but the group was as ready for them as anyone can really be: as random as they might sound, the effect is purposeful, and packs a punch. There’s another even more caricaturish faux-martial passage here, and the group sank their teeth into it. The piece wound out slowly, a requiem of slowly shifting string textures punctuated by distant, decreasingly frequent, minimalist bell accents, the funeral winding down pensively, one bitter memory at a time.
The Polish Cultural Institute regularly schedules an excellently yearly series of film, literary, dramatic and musical events, not only in New York but elsewhere in the United States and in Poland as well.