United Kingdom Edinburgh International Festival 2014 (14) – Górecki, Penderecki: Polish Radio Choir, Greyfriars Kirk, Edinburgh, 18.8.2014 (SRT)
When the stridently beautiful triads that begin Górecki’s famous Totus tuus seemed to set light to the resonant acoustic of Greyfriars Kirk, I knew this concert was going to be something special. The Polish Ministry of Culture have been leading lights in bringing both the I, CULTURE orchestra and the Polish Radio Choir to the Edinburgh International Festival, and the results in both cases have been stunning. This choir broadcasts frequently with both Polish Radio and is closely associated with both Górecki and Penderecki, so they brought to Edinburgh some of this core repertoire and did so triumphantly.
Their sound is not only beautiful but also remarkably distinctive, and it struck me once or twice that this might be the exemplar East-meets-West choir, combining the beauty and clarity that you associate with Western choirs with the darkness and soul that you expect from the Russians. That makes for a peculiarly resonant mix and, like the I, CULTURE orchestra last night, some of their appeal comes from the fact that they don’t always blend entirely homogenously. That’s not to attack their accuracy, which is phenomenal, but is a comment on how they seem to open up an unusually vast quantity of space between the top of the sopranos and the bottom of the basses. That top seems to catch the church’s acoustic thrillingly, like the crest of a wave, while the smoky, almost chocolatey sound of the lower voices is reserved not just for the basses but also for the altos. It’s magical, and the music they sang was spellbinding, too.
Neither Górecki nor Penderecki are exactly at the cutting edge of 20th century dissonance, and they construct their sacred music using simple building blocks very successfully. They also (mostly) use repetition to just the right degree: only Górecki’s Marian antiphon Matko Najświçtsza seemed to take it just a little too far, but both of his settings, the only Polish language pieces in the concert, benefited from deliciously crunchy, swooshy consonants.
This was another Greyfriars concert to cherish, though, for the second time in a week, I couldn’t help but wonder what those 17th century Protestant reformers would think if they knew that their church was being used for hymns to the Virgin Mary, however beautifully sung!
The Edinburgh International Festival runs until Sunday 31st August in venues across the city. For full details click here.