Where were you in 1992? Many of our readers weren’t born yet. But older readers will remember the strange surge of Polish composer Henryk Górecki as his third symphony topped the classical charts, sold a million copies and crashed into the mainstream. Even Górecki was surprised, as the symphony had been written in 1976. But the seeds had already been sown, as this was an era in which people sought solace in popular music. The CD arrived two years after Enigma and two before the Benedictine Monks of Santo Domingo de Silos, but was not as unusual as it seemed. After all, it struck a common chord. The music was inspired by a lament attributed to Mary, a folk song delivered by a mother whose son had been killed in war, and a message written on a concentration camp wall. Bearing the subtitle, Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, the mournful, repetitive piece touched something in the heart, just when it was needed. A generation later, a new version does the same.
By pedigree alone, Sorrow manages to cross boundaries. Familiar names include Rebecca Foon (A Silver Mt. Zion, Esmerine) on cello and Sarah Neufeld (Arcade Fire, Bell Orchestre) on violin. Stetson collaborated with Neufeld on last year’s Never Were the Way She Was, but this is a bigger beast. No longer straddling the line between ambient and classical, this Symphony No. 3 is drama and volume, modern composition and post-rock. Anyone expecting to hear a “simple” saxophone work or a jagged dissection of Górecki’s work will be disappointed. Stetson’s work is a reverent, powerful expansion. With Liturgy’s drummer and itsnotyouitsme’s guitarist on board, along with many other luminaries, including Stetson’s supremely talented sister Megan on vocals, this new rendition of an old favorite goes where no version has gone before.
One of Sorrow‘s strengths is that the repetition is barely noticed. A variety of instruments swirls around the main theme, while the volume rapidly increases. No patience is required to enjoy this ambitious work, and yes, enjoy is the proper word, as this new version is far less sorrowful and far more enveloping than the original. While listening, one has the sense of being caught up in forces larger than one’s self: death and destiny, angels and apocalypses. And just when it all seems ready to topple into madness, everything vanishes save the strings. In the 13th minute, a bass note emerges from a single speaker, prefacing the vocal; cymbals shimmer like rising souls. Albums like these are rarely recorded, for a simple reason: composers usually stick to their own genres. But Stetson’s background in independent rock and instrumental experimentalism marks him as a cross-cultural veteran. So if the explosion of the 17th minute and the cacophony of the 27th resonate more like something from one of those other Montreal bands, so much the better. Stetson makes Górecki’s symphony his own; it’s not just the definitive rendition, it’s a startling symphony in its own right.
In the second movement, Megan Stetson finds her time to shine. Her multi-octave voice is a modern astonishment: more accessible than that of Dawn Upshaw, as befits this version. To be fair, Upshaw never considered the thought of crossing over. Lisa Gerrard may make a better comparison (although her range dips lower), as her sonic settings are more diverse. Suffice it to say that the singing Stetson possesses a rare purity, like an unblemished mirror. The blasts and drums that introduce the third movement provide a sharp contrast, like cannon fire aimed at a choir. This purposeful juxtaposition underlines the tension of war and its aftermath: glamour and despair intertwined. And then the sad, sweet coda, the beauteous withdrawal.
Górecki was relatively inactive after the success of his third symphony, managing to begin only one other before his death in 2010. But Symphony No. 4 (which was completed by his son and released on Nonesuch Records earlier this year) is also worth mentioning, a 5-note staccato theme dominating the first and fourth movements while more intricate themes decorate the middle movements. In time, this work may also receive accolades akin to its predecessor, but it may take the intervention of a visionary like Stetson to put it over the top. Stetson’s skill at locating the heart of Górecki’s music and amplifying its pulse makes Sorrow one of the year’s essential releases, and if it sparks a trend, we’ll be overjoyed. (Richard Allen)