Henryk Gorecki's Requiem has some fun with polka rhythms, but not enough


Henryk Gorecki, "Kleines Requiem fur eine Polka," performed by the London Sinfonietta, David Zinman conducting; Harpsichord Concerto, performed by Elzbieta Chojnacka and the London Sinfonietta, Markus Stenz conducting; "Good Night" for soprano, alto flute, three tam-tams and piano, performed by Dawn Upshaw, John Constable (piano) and David Hockings (tam-tams), (Nonesuch 79362-2)

None of these new pieces by Gorecki is likely to be the hit that the Polish composer's chart-busting Symphony No. 3 was. The 25-minute Requiem is not the jeu d'esprit that its title promises: It is an intense and grave work that, nevertheless, does have some fun with the dance rhythms of the polka in the second and third movements. But the fun isn't much, and the gravity of the work -- this is, after all, a Requiem, even if a wordless one -- in its other movements doesn't seem connected to anything that sounds worth mourning for.

The Harpsichord Concerto sounds like wind-up imitation Vivaldi.

The vocal piece, "Good Night," is dedicated to the memory of Michael Vyner, one of Gorecki's English admirers. This slow piece in three movements will remind some listeners of the composer's Third Symphony. The text of the final movement -- performed with typical sensitivity by soprano Dawn Upshaw -- comes from Horatio's epitaph for Prince Hamlet ("Good night, sweet prince") in Shakespeare's "Hamlet." The piece doesn't have the seductive veneer of the Third Symphony. It's just plain boring.


Sofia Gubaidulina, Chaconne, Sonata and "Musical Toys," performed by pianist Andraes Haefliger; Introitus: Concerto for Piano and Chamber Orchestra, performed by Haefliger and the Radio Philharmonic of Hanover, Bernhard Klee conducting (Sony Classical SK53960).

No one will ever accuse Sofia Gubaidulina's music of being boring. Of all the Eastern European composers who may be loosely grouped together as minimalists, it's Gubaidulina who seems to write the music with the most going on.

I still remember her Chaconne (1962), performed by the Russian pianist Marina Mdivani (to whom it was dedicated), in the latter's American debut more than 30 years ago in Carnegie Hall. The work didn't much impress the New York critics -- to whom, incidentally, Gubaidulina's work is now all the rage -- but I thought it then a serious and powerful virtuoso work. I still do.

The Sonata (1969) is the closest that Gubaidulina, who studied with Shostakovich, comes to Prokofiev. The first movement borrows liberally (and delightfully) from American swing music; the second movement is a songful adagio in which one can hear the composer's Tatar origins; and the toccata-like final movement (the one that resembles Prokofiev most closely) is a virtuoso tour de force.

"Musical Toys" is a cycle of 14 charming pieces -- Gubaidulina wrote them for her own daughter -- that is squarely in the musical tradition of such cycles as Schumann's "Kinderszenen" and Debussy's "Children's Corner."

They are wonderful pieces that capture the innocence and wonder of childhood, but they are definitely not for children -- unless unusually gifted -- to play.

The piano concerto is not really a piano concerto in the usual sense, but a piece like Berg's Chamber Concerto for piano and violin and 19 winds, in which the instruments relate to each other on an equal basis. Gubaidulina's music is much influenced by Catholic liturgy (hence the Latin title, Introitus, which refers to the first part of the Mass). This is a beautiful, contemplative work, in which the solo instrument and the orchestra sometimes suggest the antiphonal responses of priest and congregation.

All the works are beautifully performed by the young German pianist and (in the Introitus) the fine north German orchestra.


To hear excerpts of Sofia Gubaidulina's Piano Sonata, call Sundial, The Sun's telephone information service, at (410) 783-1800. In Anne Arundel County, call (410) 268-7736; in Harford County, (410) 836-5028; in Carroll County, (410) 848-0338. Using a touch-tone phone, punch in the four-digit code 6190 after you hear the greeting.

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