Where every verse is filled with sorrow

When a recording of Gregorian chant by the Benedectine Monks of Santo Domingo went multi-platinum in the early ’90s, nobody could figure out what spurred the public to buy the disc in droves.

Press pundits wanted to pin the success of the monks on some sort of spirituality resurgence, although others mumbled something or other about the influence of Michael Cretu, who mixed Gregorian chant with hip-hop beats on his first album as Enigma.

It was the second most interesting classical music story of that era.

Although not given as much scrutiny, a Nonesuch recording of Henryk Gorecki’s Symphony No. 3 managed to peak at no. 6 on the UK charts in 1993.

Not only was it a classical recording — with no overtures for crossover gimmickry — it was a recording of a modern work. That’s like seeing the Sun City Girls lodged on the Hot 100 Singles Chart alongside Britney Spears.

But Gorecki’s Symphony No. 3 doesn’t sound like (what’s often perceived as) a 20th Century classical work. It’s tonal, not at all thorny and inscrutible like, say, Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire.

In fact, the framing canons which makes up most of the symphony’s 26-minute first movement is reminiscent of Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, a piece made famous in the film Platoon.

Then there’s soprano Dawn Upshaw, a singer whose strong, clear voice elevates just about everything it tackles. On this work, Upshaw’s performance telegraphs the work’s subtitle — “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs”.

The thick texture of the symphony, with its slow, pulsing rhythm, feels timeless. There’s a tonal root to the work but also a sense of dischord, as if Gorecki has reached into the distant past while keeping firmly planted in the present. Much like Arvo Part.

Scored only for strings, prepared piano and voice, Gorecki’s third symphony uses a minimal amount of material, but it’s not a minimalist work. Economic, yes, but minimalistic, no.

It’s that economy which gives the work such directness. Non-classical listeners would find the symphony easy to digest, but it’s by no means simplistic.

Gorecki has moved on stylistically since composing his third symphony in 1976. His more recent works incorporate more Polish folk references, juxtaposed with far more thornier textures.

But it’s this recording that put Gorecki, a late-comer to the field of composition, on the map, and it’s a work that deserves the success it earned.