There are few genres more misunderstood than classical music. Music reviewers don’t bother touching it too much, primarily because the general public has moved on to more immediately gratifying musical ideas — basically any genre to have arisen out of the last 80 years. It takes time and introspection to appreciate a piece of classical music, just as it does to meditate. One might even say classical music is more in touch with itself than the emotive music of today.
For evidence of this, look no further than Henryk Górecki’s “Symphony No. 3,” as performed by Beth Gibbons and the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra, which was released last Friday. The entire 48-minute composition is an exercise in very specific brands of sadness, accentuated by Gibbons’ naturally despairing timbre.
The world first heard Gibbons’ baritone whimper in the English band Portishead. Together, Portishead has released three studio albums including 1994’s demonically groovy classic “Dummy,” which repurposed samples and drum loops to build a new, more mysterious, creepy and extremely accentuated brand of hip-hop involving much more instrumentation. This was the beginning of a new genre called trip-hop. Portishead didn’t invent trip-hop, but “Dummy” was certainly a formative and influential timepiece.
Lucky for Gibbons, “No. 3” is comparably melancholic. Written in 1976 by Polish composer Henryk Górecki, the three movements signify different economic and political changes in Poland’s history, including the Holocaust and the Sicilian uprisings. The lyrical accompaniment is taken from touching sources that are relevant to the theme. It would suffice to say the piece is pretty gloomy, and Gibbons’ performance snuggles right in with the deep, depressive cellos and the chugging, looming piano.
In the majority of Portishead’s tracks, Gibbons stays in her lower register, representing herself as one of the few contraltos in popular music (others include Amy Winehouse and Cher). While Gibbons has hit some really high notes on Portishead tracks like “All Mine,” this transition from what is essentially a pop vocal style to a more traditional, operatic style has forced Gibbons to hit some of the highest notes she’s ever recorded on tape. The Symphony calls for a soprano, and unexpectedly, Gibbons sits on every note with the delicacy of a cloud.
The conductor, Krzysztof Penderecki, maintains the melancholy with suspense in hand. In the first of the three movements, “Sostenuto tranquillo ma cantabile,” the low and buzzing violins rise up to meet the sparks of excitement erupting from staccato harp plucks. It’s easy to envision Penderecki’s hands rising and falling with the dynamics of the piece.
Gibbons then crawls out of the still sea of strings and piano and turns it into a Polish 15th-century lament from Mary, Mother of Jesus. The solemn text translated into English reads, “My son, my chosen and beloved/share your wounds with your mother/and because, dear son, I have always carried you in my heart/and always served you faithfully.”
Since Górecki was commissioned to write post-Holocaust songs in the ’60s, it’s no wonder why themes of war and child separation are so integral to the symphony’s themes.
In the third movement, Gibbons sends the orchestra off to a long, distant close — the symphony equivalent of a trash can ending. The repetitive swells start to get twitch-worthy after about five minutes, but as soon as the last swell is sung, everyone and the orchestra sucks into silence. Ten seconds later, the audience erupts into applause that had been building for the entire performance.
Not only is “Symphony No. 3” an undeniably bleak expression amongst all music, but Gibbons’ intensity and originality makes this performance relatable to the modern individualistic human experience. Sadness hasn’t changed much in the last 150 years, and a marriage between modern pop sentimentality and past musical styles can evoke a familiar reaction. A piece of art like “Symphony No. 3” is a reminder that humans are all strung from the same string.