Album Review: Colin Stetson – SORROW

Saxophone virtuoso reimagines a tragic 20th century symphony

If you’re as much of a noob as I am when it comes to classical music (even of the contemporary variety), some context is in order before listening to SORROW, Colin Stetson’s reimagining of Henryk Górecki’s 3rd Symphony. Consisting of three movements, the composition was hatched in 1977, with each section centering around a different recited (or, more accurately, sung) text. The first is a lament from the Virgin Mary to Jesus Christ; the second a message scrawled by a Polish gestapo prisoner to her mother during World War II; the third a grief-laden folk song about a dead soldier in the Silesian uprisings. But the thematic connection goes beyond the massive umbrella of war and religion into something more specific and personal: children being taken away from their parents.

It’s that second trait that, in a way, makes all of the historical background moot. I say that not to diminish the tragedy of Christ on the cross, a starving prisoner of war yearning for her mom, or another matriarch dealing with the bloody death of her son. But those are scenarios that not everyone — especially a cranky American rock critic such as myself — can relate to. What everyone can relate to, however, is separation. Górecki himself avoided directly tying himself to the political interpretations of his work, giving more credence to the idea that his third symphony, for all its complex repetition, explores the emotional bond, and the eventual severance of that bond, between mother and child. And that’s it. Even if one hasn’t lost their parent or their kid, they surely know the feeling of wanting that person’s comfort when they’re not there. They surely know the palpable fear of losing them.

So it makes sense that, when interpreting Górecki’s most famous work, Stetson tempered his experimental urges and kept the the core of the 3rd Symphony intact. Melodically and rhythmically, there’s little difference between his version and the original, the alterations coming from additions, not subtractions. Even when blood and tissue coagulate to form a more muscular body, you’re able to see Górecki’s skeleton underneath. The first movement, “Lento — Sostenuto Tranquillo Ma Cantabile”, still relies on his doomed interplay between the double basses, a seemingly endless whirlpool whose currents widen with each cycle. But where Górecki’s arrangement rose into a waterspout using only strings, Stetson augments the strains of Sarah Neufeld and Rebecca Foon with foreboding guitar drones and the full drum kit of Greg Fox (Guardian Alien, formerly of Liturgy), amping up the dread and longing with black metal emotionalism. At nearly 30 minutes long, the sonic funeral swells into a funeral march, then a funeral war, if there is such a thing. If this was a battle, it would be the kind that has elephants, their trunks armored and their tusks barbed with iron spikes. Needless to say, everyone would die.

This decidedly epic nature makes the rest of SORROW feel like something of a respite, despite the final two sections dealing with tragedies that are arguably more realistic than the Passion Play of the first. When the soothing yet melancholic vocal motif of “Tranquillissimo” starts riding on floor toms and Stetson’s saxes around the six-and-a-half-minute mark, we’re suddenly in more modern territory: ’80s soft rock by way of a dirge. And even when the third movement brings back the string theme of “Lento”, now surrounded by drums and horror synths, it never matches that initial power of the first. Part of this has to do with how Górecki structured the symphony, but because Stetson makes an already formidable maelstrom even more catastrophic early on; because he so successfully intensifies the unbearable feelings of the original composition, emotional exhaustion sets in once the album’s only a little bit past the halfway point. In that sense, SORROW feels like a half-hour pummeling followed by a 24-minute healing session. And maybe that’s the point. Separation — and the grief resulting from it — is never an evenly balanced journey.

Essential Tracks: “Sorrow: I – Lento — Sostenuto Tranquillo Ma Cantabile”


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