When one thinks of classical music, they don’t typically associate it with anything experimental. Colin Stetson aims to alter the stereotype with his newest record, Sorrow (a reimagining of Gorecki’s 3rd Symphony). This album is particularly strange because it seems as if it should be rather traditional; it draws heavily from a work by one of the most respected composers of our time, Henryk Gorecki. Gorecki is widely considered to be the most commercially successful composer of contemporary classical music. His 3rd Symphony (also known as the Symphony of Sorrowful Songs) was the inspiration for Stetson’s Sorrow and serves as a decent backbone from which to build another beautiful work.
Despite being derivative, Sorrow manages to come across as entirely authentic. The first few minutes of the first movement, “Sorrow I- Lento- Sostenuto Tranquillo Ma Cantible” are more atmospheric than one would expect. Though the music is being produced with a traditional orchestra, there’s a strange anticipation for the beat to drop or the entrance of a synth. Instead of giving the audience what they expect, Stetson transitions to a softer, deeply melodic theme which runs through the entire piece. Once strings and vocals are introduced, the work takes on a whole new, gorgeous life. The soloist’s expressive voice and full, operatic tone complement the music well and the strings are simply transcendent. When the piece ends, fading to the familiar melody from the start, sorrow fills the listener. We eagerly await the second movement.
Strings introduce the second movement (and the shortest, clocking in at a little over 10 minutes), “Sorrow II- Lento E Largo- Tranquillisimo.” They’re relaxed, and provide a nice respite after the slow chaos of the first movement. When the rest of the orchestra is introduced, we are given what we expected from the beginning of this piece: a wall of sound. The soloist is, again, perfectly suited to what she sings. Though she began as more of a soprano, her alto-esque entrance at the start of the second movement accompanies the dark arrangement in a way that lulls the listener into a inexplicable sadness. Stetson has taken a more experimental approach to the symphony in “Sorrow II”; he has added some extra effects (electric instruments, modern percussion) that are (thankfully) used sparingly. They weave into the piece gracefully and do not wrench the listener from the beauty of the work. The soloist, in what could be considered the “bridge” of the piece, slips easily into her aforementioned soprano skin and delivers yet another stunning performance.
The third and final movement, “Sorrow III- Lento- Cantible-Semplice” is more percussive and striking than the others. As the final movement, it must leave the listener with the impression that this is an important, interesting work- and it fulfills that duty admirably. “Sorrow III” is an epic, grandiose piece that ends Stetson’s “reimagined symphony” well. Though not as interesting musically as the first movement, its composition has a rather noble quality, which seems fitting to cap off Stetson’s masterpiece.
Listen to this album. It is well-crafted, complicated, and an extremely satisfying piece to get lost in. There are striking moments of intense sadness, hope, and occasionally- loss. We are subjected to the loss of a melody, of a movement (the transition from the first to the second), and finally, of the piece itself. It pulls a listener in, which is exactly what music should do.