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Gorecki's 'Miserere,' An A Cappella Oasis Of Calm

A new album of choral<em> </em>music by the late Polish composer Henryk Gorecki creates a calm and welcoming space.
Janek Skarzynski
AFP/Getty Images
A new album of choral music by the late Polish composer Henryk Gorecki creates a calm and welcoming space.

Twenty years have passed since Polish composer Henryk Górecki became one of the most talked about figures in classical music. In 1992, his painfully beautiful Third Symphony, the "Symphony of Sorrowful Songs," shot up the charts and was played on the radio everywhere. A recording conducted by David Zinman and featuring soprano Dawn Upshaw sold more than a million copies — huge for a classical album.

Górecki, who died in 2010, never produced another piece with the power to resonate like that symphony, but interest in his music remains. The Los Angeles Master Chorale and conductor Grant Gershon have just released Miserere, a gorgeous album including three of the composer's a cappella works. Gershon has been exploring Górecki's music with this chorus since he became its music director a decade ago. "We continue to find new wellsprings of compassion and humanity in these works," Gershon writes in the liner notes.

Those qualities are at the heart of the album, which is anchored by the 33-minute Miserere for eight-part chorus. Górecki wrote the piece in response to an incident of police brutality in the city of Bydgoszcz. It was in 1981, at the height of the conflict between the Solidarity movement and the communist government. A few months later, martial law was declared and Górecki's music lay silent. The piece finally premiered in 1987.

Like the "Symphony of Sorrowful Songs," Górecki's Miserere is simple in its construction but not simpleminded. The entire text consists of just five words — "Domine Deus noster, Miserere nobis" (Lord our God, have mercy on us). He builds the piece slowly, in layers, beginning with low tones in the basses and eventually rising to the sopranos. The repeated phrase "Domine Deus" washes over in peaceful waves — its meditative mood about as far as you can get from a ferocious police beating.

The Miserere is bookended by the short Lobgesang in German and a set of Five Marian Songs (Pieśni Maryjne) in Polish.

Górecki wrote his Lobgesang (Song of Praise) in 2000 to celebrate the 600th anniversary of the birth of Johann Gutenberg, inventor of movable-type printing. Punctuated by boisterous cries of "lobet" (praise), the chorale's mighty sound eventually gives way to some terrifically soft, low and sustained notes, over which Górecki magically introduces chromatic pings from a solitary glockenspiel.

In the Marian songs, it's Górecki's simple approach that touches the heart. Inspired by Polish folk and church music, he sets these sweetly melodic songs in uncomplicated harmonies with subtle splashes of dissonance. "Most Holy Mother," the second and longest of the songs, shows off the ensemble's lustrous blend, handsomely recorded in Walt Disney Concert Hall's warm but precise acoustic.

Miserere is a quiet, contemplative record, beautifully sung. It creates a calm and welcoming space — a perfect antidote to busy, disjointed lives too often led without repose.

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Tom Huizenga is a producer for NPR Music. He contributes a wide range of stories about classical music to NPR's news programs and is the classical music reviewer for All Things Considered. He appears regularly on NPR Music podcasts and founded NPR's classical music blog Deceptive Cadence in 2010.