The early 90s were heady times for me, a young college student. I was like a lot of kids my age in that my friends and I were always at some show downtown. Between punk and hardcore shows, Ska and metal, there were very few weekends that we weren’t in some mosh pit or chilling in some basement club drinking beers. I and my group of friends were fanatics when it came to the music we loved. This was before the days of iTunes and Spotify so we were always in the record stores on the prowl for more of what we wanted or anything that sounded like it. The one thing I felt made us different, was the types of music we were into. I can’t say for sure, because I didn’t have access to everyone’s CD collection at the time. But suffice it to say, there are times I felt different because of what I listened to.
It started with a music appreciation class in college. My friend had gotten turned on to Yitzak Perlman’s performance of “Four Seasons”. I was already into Berlioz and was exploring some of the experimental stuff like Diamanda Galas and Kitaro. Whenever we came across something new we’d hang out at each other’s places, smoke cigarettes, and pot, drink beer and play the hell out of the flavor of the month.
Over the next couple of years, my taste in music expanded and matured. I had another friend who was into music but didn’t really go to shows. One day he invited me over to his place after classes. He wanted to share something he’d come across. He put the cd into the player and it changed my perception of classical music forever. It was moody, unassuming, minimal, but beautiful. It was Henryk Gorecki.
This friend and I had already bonded over a shared love of Portishead and the dark vocals of Beth Gibbons. The introduction of this obscure classical composer added another level of music appreciation to our friendship and a new layer of complexity to our tastes. Little did I know that these two artists in common would one day intersect.
40 years after the initial North American release of Gorecki’s 3rd Symphony, the Polish National Radio Symphony released “The Symphony of Sorrowful Songs”, with Portishead’s Beth Gibbons performing vocals.
When I heard last year that one of my favorite female vocalists was going to be singing one of my all-time favorite symphonies, I was both elated and skeptical. While I love Gibbons’ voice, I was somewhat doubtful about her ability to successfully perform in such a disparate setting, especially when you consider the challenge posed by Gibbon’s inability to read music or speak Polish. There are many opera singers that don’t speak the language in which they are required to sing. And if Gibbons, along with her Portishead band mates can produce “Dummy” without her being able to read music, I was more than willing to give this a chance.
I LOVE the 1995 release of this Symphony. It introduced me to a world of classical music beyond Vivaldi and Scriabin. But in listening to this new version I’ve come to understand that Beth Gibbons was born for this performance. Her vocals could be described as forlorn, longing, perhaps even sorrowful. Despite the linguistic challenges, Gibbons delivers a performance that would have made Gorecki lament her absence for the original 1976 recording were he still alive. This is an album worth checking out. You can listen to most of it and watch a live performance on Youtube. However, as usual, I am going to recommend you support this recording by purchasing the entire thing. At 11 dollars it’s well worth the price.