INTERVIEW / Master of the circus: Henryk Gorecki was the classic over-night success story. But he'll have none of it. Interview by Mark Pappenheim

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Success came late to Henryk Gorecki, and unannounced. After half a lifetime lived out in near-obscurity in the bleak industrial complex of Katowice, on the Silesian border with Czechoslovakia, this sometime enfant terrible of the Polish avant-garde was hardly prepared for the surge of international media interest that greeted his inexorable rise, first to the top of the UK classical charts, and then to No 6 in the pop charts, following the release of his Third Symphony on the Elektra Nonesuch label last autumn.

It helped, of course, that Classic FM picked the disc out as its first 'Classic sureshot' in its first week on air. But the runaway sales of the London Sinfonietta recording were not just a UK phenomenon: the album has since sold 600,000 copies worldwide (200,000 of them here), making it the best-selling classical recording by a living composer ever. No wonder everybody wants to ask him about it.

Meeting him, though, it soon becomes clear, despite the unavoidable difficulties of communicating through an interpreter, that Gorecki would almost rather talk about anything else. Understandably. He has, after all, written more than 60 other works and gave his first all-Gorecki concert as a 25- year-old student in 1958. It's not even as if the Third Symphony was a recent piece (it dates from 1976) or as if the Sinfonietta CD was its first recording (there had been three others before it). Yet all everyone asks about is this one work. And apparently we all ask the same questions.

'Everybody asks that,' he says when I enquire if he's still suffering from shock at his chart success. 'It's always the first question.' But he's still not sure about the answer. 'Perhaps it sounds a bit rude,' he says, 'but I try not to know the true Gorecki at all. Or rather, I would love to know the true Gorecki, but the Gorecki who is going through the 'shock' is of no interest to me. I'm a bit too old for shocks like that - I don't think my heart could stand it.' And knowing of his long history of illness, you fear for him.

'That's a very roundabout answer, I'm afraid,' he apologises, before adding, with a twinkle in his eye, 'But now, just as a joke, I would like to ask you, what kind of an answer would you like me to have given?' And he sits back expectantly, clasping his hands together and fixing me with a basilisk stare.

Yet, within seconds, he is offering his own alternative answer in the form of a 'famous Polish saying' which, once translated, emerges as nothing less than Napoleon's dictum 'Every French soldier carries in his cartridge-case the baton of a marshal of France'.

But if, as he seems to be suggesting, the piece always had the potential for success, why does he think it had to wait until now to score? 'I ask myself the same question . . . I get letters from all over the world, from all kinds of people, not just musicians. I wouldn't want to share with you what they say - it is often very emotional and private - but sometimes these letters grab me by the throat. And because I am a bit older than you are, and my hair is grey, and I've lived my whole life in a very strange place and a very strange country, I can understand the things people write and why they write them to me. But you shouldn't ask me why people need this music, you should ask those who are on the receiving end . . .' And with that he offers another of his 'jokes': everyone, he says, has at some point to write his own Symphony No 3 - 'and, thanks to God, I've written mine already]'

The music industry, though, was keen for him to repeat the success and rush-released whatever recordings were available. Elektra itself actually had a readymade follow-up in the form of a Kronos coupling of the composer's first two string quartets; while Decca had also taped its own Gorecki album in the summer of 1992 - a coincidence that suggests the Third's success was symptomatic of a wider groundswell in Gorecki's favour.

When, however, Olympia, the British company which had issued an earlier Polish recording of the Third back in 1988, rushed out a disc cheekily entitled The Essential Gorecki (along the lines of Decca's The Essential Pavarotti and Essential Michael Nyman), some feared that this evidence of the composer's earlier and more acerbic pre-Seventies style might frighten a public lulled by the lush textures of the Third and bring the whole Gorecki industry to a premature halt.

Gorecki, though, insists that all his music is part of one continuous whole. Not only did he choose the pieces included on the Olympia recording but he is clearly happy to have two of them - his 1960 Scontri (Collisions) and his 1965 Refren (Refrain) - finally receiving their UK premieres this week as part of the BBC's 60th-birthday tribute to him during Radio 3's Polska] season, opening tonight.

Heard with hindsight, Refrain is perhaps the paradigmatic Gorecki score, an adumbration of the 'one big idea' that underlies works as different as the Old Polish Music of 1969 and the new Concerto-Cantata, receiving its UK premiere in Manchester tonight. Time and again, a static, tonal centre is established, only to be subjected to attack by discordant, clashing forces, before reasserting itself and reemerging (not always unscathed) as the work's fundamental, primal core. It's a recurrent pattern that can, of course, provide multiple metaphors - musical, emotional, political, spiritual, personal. It's tempting to see the central 'circus' music which attempts to swamp the still, small (pianissississimo) voice of the solo flute in the Concerto-Cantata as an anticipation of the 'media circus' that was to engulf the composer only weeks after its Amsterdam premiere last year.

It's tempting, too, to classify Gorecki's career in phases - avant- garde, melodic, 'white note', 'minimalist'. But he will have none of it. He seems particularly incensed at the idea of his avant-garde phase. 'No] No] No]' he insists. 'I created the avant-garde. I didn't just pass through it. I created my own avant- garde. There's a big difference.' And his avant-garde was, he maintains, always very different from anyone else's: 'Darmstadt, Donaueschingen, Domaine Musical,' he intones, reeling off the names of the citadels of Sixties and Seventies Serialism. 'They never performed a single piece of mine at Donaueschingen. The one time I went to Darmstadt, I left after three days.' And when, in 1977, he went to Royan, another new music festival in France, for the premiere of his now celebrated Third, he found it derided by the acolytes of the then current hard line - 'But, for me, it was the most avant-garde piece I heard there.'

The idea that he learnt anything from the likes of Boulez, Nono, Stockhausen he finds laughable. 'I, Gorecki, I myself was creating my own musical world - and the people who helped me were Mozart, Bach, Chopin, Szymanowski . . . Mozart, Bach, Szymanowski, Chopin . . . Mozart, Bach, Schubert, Brahms . . . Beethoven, Szymanowski . . . This is the music I was drawing from - and the fact that I've been going all my life to this wonderful corner of the world, at Podhale, in the Tatra Mountains.'

Like the multiple strings in Refrain, cast into scurrying polyphonic disarray by a sudden tam- tam blow (of fate?) before eventually settling back on to their opening, eternal C major, his wandering thoughts have finally homed in on what for him is clearly the true refrain of his life's work - his lifelong inspiration, not just in the great classical tradition, but in the folk heritage of his native soil. 'Let's talk politics a bit' he suggests with a wry bark of a laugh. 'For over 120 years Poland didn't exist. It was partitioned between three superpowers. Despite that, the nation survived. Why? You know what kept us together? It's art that we can thank. That was our identity and these are our roots and that stays in us . . . Now, what was the question?'

(Photograph omitted)