Through a fairly well-balanced musical household, I was introduced to classical music at a pretty young age and dabbled in it as a genre off and on throughout my years growing up and even through high-school. I listened to work by all the major players like Beethoven and Mozart and Bach and discovered pieces by each of them that stood out to my ears. In college, I pretty much abandoned classical music as the temptation of college radio and reviewing for the college paper (along with a growing interest in the ever-expanding field of electronic music) took over all my waking hours.
However, one night for a class I went to the local symphony and sat in on a live performance of a piece that absolutely floored me. In typical college fashion, I wrote down the name of the piece and the composer and then promptly lost it in the clutter of college living, only to have my short attention span swallowed-up by some other flavor of the week. Some years later, after I'd graduated from college and was living on my own and feeling somewhat down, I flipped through the dials of my stereo only to land on the local public radio station and hear the gorgeous sounds that I'd heard many years earlier and then forgotten. I called the radio station and wrote down the composer and the piece and the very next day went to the record store and bought the CD. In the time since, it has easily become one of the top 5 favorite pieces of music that I own.
The title of the piece actually refers to the words sung within, one of which is a Lamentation of the Holy Cross Monastery from the 15th Century, another of which is the Prayer of the eighteen-year-old Helena Wanda Blazusiakowna (which was inscribed on the wall of a Gestapo cell in Zakopane), and the last of which is an old folk song in which a mother laments her son killed in battle. Musically, the symphony is split into three parts, the first of which runs roughly a half-hour and builds ever so slowly out of a canon for strings until it reaches a high point about halfway in and subsequently goes through a devastatingly gorgeous release of vocals and rising musical intensity before again slowly unwinding into nearly the same single melodic line with which the piece began.
The second two movements combined add up to roughly the same length as the first, and the second again moves slowly at first but flickers with delicate beauty as it progresses, unfolding with several subtle melodic changes. The third movement opens with a repeated motif and like the first piece builds to a much more intense section and unfolds with some of the most heartwrenching orchestral work that I've ever heard. The piece ends with a hopeful finale that is never overbearing and somehow feels like the perfect conclusion to the rather somber symphony.
Unless the world suddenly turns on a dime and all suffering instantly goes away and all war is ended, I feel like this will always be a piece of music that is timely. It's a piece that acknowledges the sadness in the world and of the past in a way that I have rarely heard expressed in music and yet also conveys a sense of hope. Critics of the work have dismissed it as one big crescendo, but there is far more subtle work going on in this piece than can even be heard in one listen. While listening to it over and over again as I wrote this review, it never failed in moving me. The more orchestral pieces of modern artists like Godspeed You Black Emperor ocassionally touch on the sort of beautiful sadness that work like this conveys, but simply don't harness the full depth that it does. If you enjoy the aforementioned GYBE or just want to hear some classical music that's a bit different than the usual standards, please seek this out. I can't imagine not having it in my collection.
Note: Although many will praise the Nonesuch-released version with Dawn Upshaw singing soprano and the London Sinfonietta, I actually prefer the budget-minded Naxos recording with the ever-so-slightly more understated soprano performance by Zofia Kilanowicz and the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra, who hail from Górecki's home country. Either way, it's a stunning piece (I actually own both versions).