This is a very generous compilation. In the mid-90s Naxos began one of their most enterprising and exciting series, the complete orchestral works, on six CDs, of Witold Lutoslawki who had only died a couple of years earlier.
He had been a much-revered figure for a number of years. People spoke, almost with bated breath, of his past, his earlier works and of his pioneering ones. He had a certain charisma, which came across in lectures throughout Europe but particularly in Britain. His spoken English was good and I can remember the anticipation with which one awaited the next new work, especially a symphony. In fact my one criticism of this CD is that not a single symphonic extract is transferred. It is true that the versions of the symphonies on Naxos can probably be beaten by Esa-Pekka Salonen on Sony (66280) in the 3rd and 4th and by the same conductor in the 2nd (on Sony 67189). These are with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. There are other possible versions but if this CD is meant as a layman's introduction to one of the greatest composers of the 20th Century then this is an unfortunate oversight.
But to stop carping let's investigate what has been made available here.
The CD is set out chronologically, with the Symphonic Variations of 1938, to start. The complete work, which is almost 10 minutes, long is mostly tonal and obviously inspired by Bartók who was, musically speaking, Lutoslawski's mentor in the early days in Warsaw. After the war Poland became an unfriendly place for a progressive artist so the composer moved towards a more tonally friendly language largely based on folk music. This can be clearly discerned in the next works: the Overture for Strings of 1949 and the Little Suite of 1953.
Politically and culturally things thawed after Stalin's death, and from 1954 comes the more progressive Concerto for Orchestra (1954). Lutoslawski felt confident enough by 1958 to write the solemn Funeral Music based on twelve-tone technique, in memory of Bartók, now back in favour. The Epilogue is given here.
In 1961 "Jeux Venetiens" bounced onto the scene; two movements are transferred here. The composer created a limited aleatoricism in the ad libitum sections where each player has the freedom to choose his own tempo within clear guidelines; a technique taken up by many other composers, for example Lutoslawski's English pupil, Patric Standford.
The Cello Concerto dates from 1970. Written for Rostropovich it is a great and powerful work. The Cantilena and Finale are offered here superbly played by Andrej Bauer.
The complete Paganini Variations were originally written in 1941 but recast brilliantly in 1978 for piano and orchestra alla Rachmaninov. The soloist here is not identified in the otherwise clear and succinctly compiled booklet by Peter Quinn.
Chain II was written for and recorded by Anne-Sophie Mutter under the composer's direction in 1985 (DG 445 576-2). I'm afraid that Krysztof Bakowski does not have the power or tone quality to equal her. The Ad libitum 3rd movement is heard here.
The disc ends with the finale of the Piano Concerto of 1987 with the brilliant Piotr Paleczny. His performance outshines, in my view, Paul Crossley on Sony.
Each of these extracts is played by the hard working Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra under Antoni Wit. They are fine band and the extracts have been deliberately chosen I feel to show off the best of them.
It is good to have performances of Lutoslawski played by Polish musicians who obviously know and regard this music very highly. It is a useful introduction to the composer but like all compilations leaves you feeling just a little frustrated.