A Polish Treat

Review: Polish Radio Choir

Polished would be an understatement.

Celebrating the beauty of Durham as a World Heritage site with its magnificent architecture combined with a site which has been overflowing with religious, academic and historic significance for over a thousand years. The recent campaign to promote Durham as a place of outstanding international value has boasted a wide variety of events – including what can only be described as a Polish treat. And Henryk Górecki was behind it. This landmark tour by one of Poland’s leading choirs, the Polish Radio Choir, is a tribute to the life of a great composer, his Polish roots and Catholic faith.

12 November 2010 marked the end of a richly musical life. Górecki was a composer renowned for simplicity of style and music of silencing beauty. The reputation of his music is closely tied to a certain idea of ‘Polish-ness’ in its stoic spirituality combined with strong hints of folksong within his vocal works which offer a tribute to Polish chant. The organiser’s description says it all: “An energy that builds patiently, that breathes in the silence and yet capable of an intensity that the music can barely contain, left to resonate in the imagination.”

The atmosphere was electric with the choir’s warm resonance, heightened by the thundering fireworks which punctuated the end of hushed phrases, but we were always feeling safe in the hands of the conductor, Artur Sedzielarz. This magical quality was particularly poignant during ‘Storm has come’ as the shimmering tones of the sopranos provided a ringing buzz which the Cathedral embraced and then flung back to us ringing.

The exceptional accuracy of the choir was highly commendable – some astonishing Polish polish. No amateur hissing of ‘s’ sounds to be heard as the choir sang as a controlled body, involving the audience with their corporate intake of breath as if preparing for takeoff. Without wanting to echo the predictable mantra of coffee houses, this choir did boast a perfect blend. An extraordinary connection maintained between the choir and conductor meant you could almost see a thread suspended between the conductor and choir as their eyes were drawn to him like a magnet.

The concert enjoyed moments of the sort of tension which makes you feel conscious of your own breathing. A mysteriously haunting repetition of Górecki’s scores was only made more magical by the puzzling Polish letters dancing on the pages of the programme. The unusual sounds of Polish words juxtaposed with ethereal style of music created an almost supernatural quality, resembling something like Elvish. Sustained dissonance was held with poise and boasted a beautiful buzz.

Towards the end, a sudden change of tone transported us to the moving ‘Song of the Katyń Families’, a piece which serves as a shrine to the victims of the Soviet massacre of Polish army officers in 1940. A distinct feeling of remembrance day invited reflection in the laying down of a stunning choral wreath of exquisite emotion. The final line (‘We shall follow, Poland’s children, the path of these heroes’) can be described as nothing other than a ray of piercingly bright sunshine, a sentiment reflected in the smiles creeping across the wide-eyed singers’ faces. Even I found myself grinning back at them.

Intensity, mystery and passion are all key ingredients to a music ‘born of silence, admiration, or the protest of an honest heart’. Górecki claimed that his works are ‘only a distant echo of God’s word’ and I think I would be hard pushed to disagree. All I’m sure of is that if I had been sitting on a cushioned seat in front, I would have been rocked to sleep. Thank goodness for wooden pews.

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