Henryk Gorecki, John Tavener and Arvo Part

Some years ago three composers who seemed to be doing similar things came to prominence at about the same time. It is now becoming easier to separate them.

Henryk Gorecki, a Pole, died recently, and his fame will largely rest on one piece, his Symphony no. 3 (Symphony of Sorrowful Songs) for orchestra and soprano. It’s a very moving composition with an emotional intensity that makes it compelling at first hearing, but I’m not sure that repeated listenings yield much that is new. Moreover, Gorecki’s fame will largely rest on this one work, and I suspect he will turn out to have been what they call in another part of the musical world a one hit wonder.

John Tavener (not to be confused with his Renaissance predecessor John Taverner) is still very active, and has in common with Gorecki a minimalist approach; somewhere in the background you can almost hear medieval chant. His output contains many memorable pieces, from the early The Lamb and The Protecting Veil to his recent work influenced by Islamic and Hindu traditions. He is clearly a significant composer, although it may be that his openness to various traditions will prevent his voice ultimately being a particularly distinctive one.

The third member of the trio is an Estonian, Arvo Part. I’ve been reading an interview with the conductor Richard Tognetti, a man of wide tastes who, on being asked about his dislikes, replied: ‘It used to be Arvo Part. I used really to dislike him. I’d rather play Pink Floyd…And now I like Part more, but I far prefer listening to him. He’s a boring composer to play and there’s no room for interpretation.’  This strikes me as a very reasonable comment; Part, perhaps more than the other two, writes with a kind of sparseness that requires conductors to stand back; it’s impossible to imagine a flamboyant extrovert like Leonard Bernstein conducting Part. Yet I believe that Part has more to offer than Gorecki and Tavener…

2 comments

  • Meryl McLeod

    Interesting comments on these prominent composers
    Listening to ‘The Rhythm Divine’ at the weekend I heard the name Eric Whittaker for the first time. He’s an American who has been strongly influenced by the Anglican choral tradition, and certainly the pieces played, with not very good reception, would encourage me to listen more intently to his works. Do you know of him?

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