While Henryk Górecki has been relatively prolific as a composer, he is known for hanging on to any scores he is not completely satisfied with before he sends it off for performance or publication. His early Piano Sonata, written during the summer after his first year of composition studies with Boleslaw Szabelski in Katowice, is one such piece. In fact, the score sat in his drawer for close to thirty years. In 1984, Górecki pulled it out, worked on it some more, and permitted the first movement to be premiered at a festival in Denmark. Still not satisfied, the composer held on to the score until 1990, when he finally polished it up to his complete satisfaction. It speaks volumes about the underlying consistency of musical vision that it is difficult, and perhaps impossible, to tell the difference between passages written in his youth and others added much later.
The Sonata is cast in three movements, the two mostly fast outer ones framing an extraordinary central slow movement. This brief, intensely lyrical passage, marked grave pesante e corale is just twenty-four bars in length, and the music is shorn of absolutely all excess. The theme, heard on its own at first, is set off by carefully chosen harmonies and occasional accompanying phrases, often creating dissonant, bi-tonal sonorities that somehow seem to be just right. The rest of the piece is in a similarly biting harmonic style, not so distant from the more aggressive piano music of Prokofiev or Bartók. The opening movement is the most substantial, by far, presenting an extended, slowly-unfolding theme over top of a driving accompaniment. The rhythmic propulsion is continued through a second theme before giving way to a central slow passage, in which the characteristic motive of the opening section is presented in conjunction with increasingly dense, rising chords. The jaunty second theme returns, followed by the opening theme yet again. This arch form is rounded off at the end by a brief reference to the second theme, building up to a crashing close. The characteristically extreme dynamic markings and relentless rhythmic drive prefigure (or reflect) many of Górecki's later works, and this style is carried through into the closing movement. The music is brilliant, but grindingly aggressive, relieved, as in the first movement, by a brief, and again rather extraordinary, slow passage which is stunning in its purity and the rightness of every note and chord. A brief "perpetual mobile" sweeps the music to a furious climax, tempered by one more fleeting reference to the simple melody of the slow passage.