Review by: Schuyler L
Assigned by: Roland Bruynesteyn
Note: Well, this isn’t something I’ve done… er, ever. Upon receiving the assignment, I considered the idea of reviewing a symphony proper which:
A. Was published in 1977
B. Has three movements, with the longest at nearly twenty-seven minutes
C. Is titled “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs” in reference to its subject matter, the victims of the holocaust.
… And naturally, I realized that it just wouldn’t do to say some words about this piece whilst trying to insert the usual levity I like to employ for comedic effect (when I run out of more substantive comments).
And, naturally, I sort of put this one off altogether for a while just because of that…. unfairly, I must say, because levity does not a good review make, and I might just as well put off reviewing something whimsical for lack of serious things to say.
Anyhow, this piece turned out to be one of wonderful depth and character, so I’m glad I was assigned it after all. The first movement in particular is really graced by the fine conducting of David Zinman, whose studied decisions in phrasing and texture are doubly strengthened by the warm (and wonderfully recorded) strings of London Sinfonietta. In fact, the first movement flows along so purposefully and unhampered in its first thirteen minutes that we nearly forget the presence on this recording of star soprano Dawn Upshaw, whose entrance is nothing short of angelic. Her appearance is only a brief repose, however, from the trudging, descending minor basso ostinato that is its central motif. The overall impression is one of something vibrant and unique soon to be eradicated by some impending doom.
The lamentful B-flat minor of the slow, tranquillisimo second movement is where things get quite serious. The vocal, which unceremoniously enters at the start like a quiet prayer, floats and lilts at the very center of the melody for the first time, while swells of strings add to a timeless, cosmic feeling of compassion for all suffering in this pathos-filled movement.
Finally, a somber, slightly faster D minor theme brings us back down to Earth. We feel as though something is irretrievably lost; the strings at times evoke the texture of a church organ, and soon we realize that what we are hearing is not merely a requiem for the dead, but for the world as people once knew it; the promises of the 20th century, any sense of a shared history and culture across civilisation – all of it is gone, forever, and all that remains is what we have always had – memories. But all is not lost – when the D minor melody enters a second time, its appearance seems hopeful; a testament to the immutability of a culture divided and broken, but steadfast in its determination to remember its past while forging ahead into modern culture. The piece finally resolves to a lingering, heroic A major, before vanishing into the ether once more.
An essential piece for anyone interested in modern music. As George would say, one thumb, way up there.