WARSAW — Beth Gibbons, the lead singer of the British band Portishead, released her first record in over a decade on Friday. But it’s not what you would expect from the singer whose wracked, yearning voice helped make Portishead a staple of every cool and heartbroken student’s dorm room in the 1990s.
After the pioneering trip-hop of the band’s debut album, “Dummy,” and industrial beats of its last, “Third,” Gibbons’s newest release is a recording of the Polish composer Henryk Gorecki’s Symphony No. 3, known as the “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs.”
Gorecki’s symphony, as its name suggests, is a doleful piece: The lyrics for one movement are taken from a message an 18-year-old scrawled on the walls of a prison during World War II. (“No mother, do not weep,” it begins.) That somehow didn’t stop it from being a surprise hit in the 1990s, with one recording selling over a million copies.
That might sound like safe ground for Gibbons, a singer who specializes in tragedy. But it was apparently anything but. For a start, the symphony’s vocal part is written for a classical soprano; Gibbons’s voice doesn’t go that high. And all the lyrics are in Polish, a language Gibbons doesn’t speak.
A news release for the recording said there were months of preparation for the 2014 concert where the recording was made. But how hard was it really for her to do this?
The singer never gives interviews, and declined a request for one for this article. But some of the people who worked on the performance make it sound as if she had no problems at all. “A good singer can sing even in Chinese or Japanese,” the composer Krzysztof Penderecki, who conducted the performance, said in an interview in Warsaw last month. “It’s about emotional understanding. Beth, she did a very good job. She sounds really Polish.”
Filip Berkowicz, a concert promoter who came up with the idea for the performance, agreed that Gibbons had few problems. “I knew she was well prepared, but I was very tense as she appeared on stage,” he said in an email. “But when she began to sing, tears ran down my cheeks.”
There is only one way you can really realize what Gibbons put herself through: by trying to learn Gorecki’s Symphony No. 3 for yourself. So last month I tried to do just that, and had a lesson with Anna Marchwinska, the head of the music staff at Poland’s National Opera. She is also one of two women who trained Gibbons for the concert.
“Polish is really hard to sing in, even for Poles,” said Marchwinska, before the lesson in her office at Warsaw’s opera house. “We have too many consonants.” She then wrote “Szczęście,” the Polish word for happiness on a pad. “See!” she said. “How do you sing that?”
Marchwinska has coached singers in languages ranging from German to Hungarian, she said. Her method is to break each word down into syllables, and get the singer to repeat them, over and over, until they get it right and become used to the feel of the word in the mouth.
If they can’t say it properly, she uses analogies to help them understand how something should sound or how to shape their lips. “Sex always works well,” she said.
Once the first syllable is right, it’s onto the next, then the next, until a singer knows enough words to sing a line. “It can be very tedious,” Marchwinska said.
“This is your first note,” Marchwinska then said, pointing to the score for Gorecki’s piece. “It’s an easy one,” she added. She then made the sound “sy,” the first part of “synku” (the Polish word for son).
“She,” I replied.
“Sy,” Marchwinska said.
“She,” I said back.
Marchwinska made a face that suggested she was not impressed.
Gibbons and Marchwinska worked together over several weekends in 2014, when the singer traveled to the pop star’s home near Bristol, England. They held three sessions a day, each lasting about an hour, or until Gibbons’s children got in the way, Marchwinska said.
“I enjoyed it,” she said, “ but I thought it was very difficult for her. She was frustrated a lot of the time. She wanted to quit a lot of the time, as she didn’t feel she could give justice to the music emotionally.”
Emotion is the last thing any singer can actually add to music, Marchwinska said: Pronunciation comes first, then singing, then understanding. “It’s only then you can have the emotional interpretation,” she said. “It’s actually quite a complicated process, when I think about it.”
I asked Marchwinska to teach me the symphony’s hardest vocal part and she jumped straight to a line that read, “Ej, cwierkejcie mu tam, wy ptosecki boze” (“Oh, sing for him, God’s little songbirds”).
She read it out.
I laughed: It sounded impossible to say, let alone sing.
“When she heard it, Beth had the same reaction,” Marchwinska said.
The first word turned out to be easy — it sounds like “ay” — but then we got to the next. Marchwinska said the first syllable: “Chfier,” it sounded like. I repeated it. Marchwinska told me to try again, and roll the “r.” She then told me to try saying it in a Scottish accent, to help get my tongue in the right place. After several more attempts, she gave up.
“You can’t even roll your ‘r′s?” she said. “Beth could do that!”
Even some opera singers struggle with new languages, Marchwinska said. In April, the Polish National Opera will perform “Billy Budd,” by Benjamin Britten, and a few members of the largely Polish cast were finding the English a challenge, she added. (A British vocal coach has been hired for the production.) But for most singers, used to French, German and Italian, another language is not a problem. Smartphones have helped, Marchwinska added, as singers can record lessons. (Gibbons recorded all hers.) Google Translate is also a godsend.
Reading music, however, is a whole different skill. Gibbons couldn’t read a score properly when she started learning the piece, Marchwinska said. She had to draw Gibbons a simple one, with words and numbers rather than hundreds of notes.
The symphony, for example, begins with a 12-minute passage for the orchestra; a piano note is then heard three times before the soprano enters. Marchwinska said she wrote the word “piano” in a space to represent the final piano note, and numbers to show that Gibbons should count to three, then sing.
Given all this, it was no surprise to learn that Gibbons was nervous on the night of the performance and even asked Marchwinska what she should wear, Marchwinska said. (She decided against Marchwinska’s suggestion of a gown, and went for a simple black top and pants.)
And what did Marchwinska think of the actual performance? “It was good,” she said. “It was so unusual.” When classical singers perform the symphony, it can sound similar each time, she said.
“This,” she added, “was different.”
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