European Spiritual Minimalism
Henryk Górecki (of Poland) and Arvo Pärt (from Estonia) are two European composers who picked up the mantle of minimalism and used it to make works with a decidedly different tone from what was happening in America.
Górecki’s work seems to be generally dark and pessimistic in nature, with titles such as Symphony of Sorrowful Songs and Already it is dusk. The Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, written in 1976, became an unexpected worldwide best seller when a recording was released in ’92. This extended meditation on war and totalitarianism reminds me of something Mahler or Shostakovich might have written, if they had lived long enough to hear Philip Glass.
The work is the subject of a documentary film by Tony Palmer. Netflix.
There are many recordings — the famous one that introduced it to the world features the London Sinfonietta and soprano Dawn Upshaw.
Normally I’d say that you want “the original”, but you know what? I have some reservations about Ms. Upshaw’s manner of singing. I feel terrible saying that, because she has done great things for contemporary music, but after listening to her for decades I am vaguely bugged by the way she scoops into notes and her overall tone. It’s not her, it’s me, probably!
Shopping around a bit, I tried the Naxos version, which the Gramophone guide likes, and this recent one with soprano Ingrid Perruche, which would be my pick:
Pärt seems to be more widely performed than Górecki. He’s written a lot of music for chorus which explores traditional religious themes, sung in latin…
…and he has a few nice chamber pieces and solo piano works that are popular. “Fratres” has many different versions (for string quartet, cello ensemble, wind octet and percussion, all sorts of things.) Here it is for violin and piano.
I also really like this simple piece for piano, which an amateur could play.
I have a few Pärt recordings, and the one that has impressed me the most has been this collection of choral pieces:
It includes the “Da pacem Domine” that I embedded above.
In general, I think this stuff is well-loved by Classical music fans because it resonates with other strains of music from the past, including the 20th-century symphonists I already mentioned and the sacred choral music of the Renaissance. It delivers a serious, meditative message that people really value.