> Witold Lutoslawski [PS]: Classical Reviews- March 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Witold LUTOSLAWSKI (1913-1994)
Preludes and Fugue for 13 Solo Strings (1972); Three Postludes (1958-60); Mini Overture (1982); Fanfare for Louisville (1986); Fanfare for CUBE (1987); Fanfare for the University of Lancaster (1989); Prelude for GMSD (1989);

Polish National Radio SO/Antoni Wit
recorded at Grzegorg Fitelberg Concert Hall, Katowice, September 1996 to July 2000
NAXOS 8.555270 [59:10]


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Burrowing through the booklet, I chanced on the dreaded word "serialism". On the instant, I switched from "booklet burrowing" to "brow furrowing". Being a fan of the music of Harry Partch, and therefore having singularly strong opinions about the importance of tonality to the average set of human lug-holes, I tend to (only "tend to", mind!) fight a bit shy of Dodecaphonism (excuse me while I wash out my mouth with soap and water). But then, at some point in my existence, I recall someone pointing out to me that "Do - you-know-what" and Serialism are different animals, and that you can be a Serial Composer without necessarily being, well, one of those others. Into which camp does Lutoslawski fall, I wondered (somewhat belatedly, having had his music in my record collection for years)?

Well, as it happens, it’s not that simple! He only got his compositional debut in by the skin of his teeth before the Second World War got started. It is a curious fact that, having been taken prisoner by the Nazis and having escaped, he didn’t make a beeline for Switzerland or flee westwards, but returned to Warsaw where he teamed up with Panufnik, performing "underground" recitals (presumably for the "underground"?). After the war he was somewhat constrained by the Stalinist regime, mostly to folk-song arrangements and "nice" music for children - though this period also saw the birth of his Concerto for Orchestra. It was only after Stalin turned up his toes that Lutoslawski felt free to flex his musical muscles.

Enter "serialism". But not for long. To be a serialist you have to be a control freak, especially if you’re going to keep up with them there "total serialists", who happened also to be "you-know-whats” and who produced music that was not only largely incomprehensible to the average man in the street, but also (I suspect) fairly baffling to the juries of their peers that probably made up most of their audiences. Lutoslawski ducked. He decided to go in for aleatoricism - the introduction of the element of chance, which was of course anathema to dodecaphonic total serialists (ouch - mouth wash time again!), being utterly incompatible with control-freakism.

The booklet note for this CD, a pretty enlightening piece of prose by Richard Whitehouse, reminded me that from the mid-1970s onwards there was "a new emphasis on melodic elaboration". That means you should hear a distinct difference between the meat of this CD - the Postludes and the Preludes and Fugue - and the attendant course of occasional sweetmeats - the Mini-Overture, Fanfares, and Prelude for GMSD. And, by ‘eck, you can! Of course, the problem with aleatoric music is that you need to hear several live performances before you can even begin to appreciate what it’s about. Enshrined on a CD, aleatoricism suffers the ultimate indignity, becoming indistinguishable from the old plain-Jane "play the notes as written" music that the composer has sweated cobs to break away from. Listening to a recording, you can only know that chance is playing a part if you are told that it is!

Almost paradoxically aleatoricism, even in Lutoslawski’s special “limited” version, by virtue of its inherent tendency towards chaos can often result in the self-same feeling of incomprehensibly dense argument produced by the control freaks. So, am I about to kick Lutoslawski’s music into the rejects bin before I’ve even commented on the CD in hand? You can bet your sweet life I’m not! He has some superb redeeming features, not least of which must be the same mathematical background that attracted him to the sense of the statistical in music in the first place. This came, I reckon, from the studies in mathematics at Warsaw University that he abandoned in favour of studies in music at Warsaw Conservatory. The mathematically-minded, even those of a statistical bent, have an overriding interest in making things crystal-clear (hence, maybe, the difficulties he had with the Postludes that Richard Whitehouse mentions).

Another feature is his interest, along with Ligeti and Penderecki, in "texture" (another slant on "statistics"). The driving force here is the creation of fascinating sounds as the central element of a composition. Fashioning fascinating forms from musical marble may hardly be a recipe for the greatest profundity, but the results can be immensely engaging in that truly classical sense of “entertaining the intellect”. If you couple that with Lutoslawski’s amazingly keen ear for musical “colour” as we commonly understand it, there’s a lot to be said for this angle - which lends a serious slant to Beecham’s (I think it was Beecham’s) caustic comment about the English not liking music, but liking the noise that it makes. Well, I rather do like the noises that Lutoslawski’s music makes; I would guess that (if he’s anything like on Arnold’s wavelength) that’s what matters at rock bottom.

My first reaction to noting the performers was, "A-hah! Polish performers playing Polish pieces - they should be well steeped in the idiom". But then I remembered that this sort of reasoning only really holds for music of an overtly nationalistic flavour. Shucks! Never mind. Anyway, it doesn’t alter the question! What sort of a job do they make of this music? Answer: not at all a bad one, as it happens.

Of the occasional pieces, the Mini Overture for brass quintet is by far the longest - even at three minutes! Played with cool relish and commendable light and shade, this jaunty little number is quite closely recorded. Not to worry - that’s only a problem for a few seconds - of "breathy" quiet trumpeting - just before the smile-begetting little gesture that ends the piece.

At the other extreme, if I can call it that, is the twenty-five seconds long Fanfare for CUBE that Lutoslawski wrote for the brass quintet of Cambridge University, by way of thanks for the honorary degree bestowed on him in 1987. For Lutoslawski, it’s an alarmingly conventional gesture (hardly challenging Brahms’ similarly-prompted Academic Festival Overture!), dispatched with correspondingly conventional pomp. By way of contrast, the twenty-eight seconds of the Fanfare for the University of Lancaster, composed to mark a mere visit to a common-or-garden red-brick "uni", employs a larger brass ensemble (plus snare-drum) with far more flair. Or so it seems, until you hear the Fanfare for Louisville, which is a veritable volcanic eruption of tumultuous roarings and shriekings, blasted out with satisfyingly manic energy by the brass of the PNRSO.

The Prelude for GSMD (Guildhall School of Music and Drama) is a laid-back orchestral andante, rolling amiably along, accumulating faster-flowing overlays as it works its way almost nonchalantly up to a final sonorous chord. In fact, as a prelude it can sit quite nicely in front of the Three Postludes, should you happen to feel like it.

Which brings us nicely to the meaty main courses, I found the Three Postludes hugely enjoyable, though don’t ask me why they’re called postludes - they don’t seem to come after anything - except one another, which would anyway make the first one a prelude (unless of course you adopt my suggestion from the previous paragraph)! The first two feature some spectacular fusillades of antiphonally-arrayed percussion. At the start of No. 1, the spacious ambience of the recording is immediately apparent in the slowly rotating mists of hushed strings, against which are set clusters of parti-coloured sparks. Layered brass crescendi and pounding drums build a climax of towering menace, which at its height disintegrates in a whirring cascade of strings, leaving the original textures to fade slowly. No. 2 is a contrastedly hyperactive prestissimo, fizzing around the orchestra like a blustery snowstorm caught in headlights and - as if heard through a windscreen - never penetrating much above a subdued mezzo-forte. To my ears, it all seems to be played and recorded with a gratifying combination of clarity and atmosphere. No. 3 is different again, by turns vigorous, strident, muted, uneasy, its episodes are commanded by a recurring, abrupt loud chord (something of a whip-cracking ringmaster). Lashing all the "acts" into submission, this bully gradually takes over the whole show before creeping off into the shadows. Read into that what you will!

Lutoslawski, the note informs me, explains in the score that the Preludes and Fugue for 13 Solo Strings may be "performed whole or in various shortened versions". Apparently, if the work is performed entire the sequence of the preludes must be as written. If performed in an abridged version, the order of the (selected) preludes is up to the performers, the composer having craftily engineered their extremities to neatly dovetail together. Guess what? I’ve tried it, and by golly it works! To be fair, it works best if you copy the selection to MD, to eliminate the gaps where the CD player is repositioning itself. Moreover, this explains why the track divisions on the CD don’t seem to correspond to the points where the continuity of the music sensibly changes (I’d have saved myself a lot of puzzlement if I’d read the notes before I listened to the music!).

This is the one work on the disc where I felt that the music could be better played, largely on account of my having an old LP where this very music is better played (Warsaw Philharmonic CO/Composer, Aurora AUR 5059). However, don’t be put off by that: this is tough and challenging music for players as well as listeners, and the 13 soli of the PNRSO make a more than creditable stab at it. Along with the likes of Bartok, Penderecki and Ligeti, Lutoslawski takes full advantage of the mind-boggling menu of timbre and attack offered by the violin family, and this inevitably stretches string players (as well as their strings!) to the limit.

This disc is Volume 7 of Naxos’ cycle of the orchestral works of Lutoslawski. Regardless of volumes 1 to 6, it constitutes a pretty fair sample of the composer’s later music, both “serious” and “occasional”, and a really decent introduction to anyone remotely interested in the work of one of Poland’s “all-time greats". In this context certainly, Antoni Wit and the PNRSO are admirable advocates. They may not have the body and bloom of the top-flight "internationals", but they make up for that (assuming that it’s even necessary) with bags of character and enthusiasm.

Overall, and other than the minor quibbles I have otherwise mentioned, the recording is very good. The brass pieces and the string work combine warmth and brilliance by virtue of the ensembles being placed forward on the "platform", but stopping short of sitting in your lap. In the works for full orchestra, the acoustic is spacious without muddying the waters. Moreover, the perspective is comfortingly consistent, the smaller groups simply occupying the "soloists’ spot" in the same acoustic space as the full orchestra.

I will confess that I’d seen two reviews of this CD before sitting down to write this one, but I’ve studiously ignored them right down the line. However, one of them did suggest that the sound was "quite studio-bound". As you can gather, I don’t agree, any more than I can agree with another suggestion, that the mature composer had perhaps misjudged the density of sound of which 13 solo strings are capable. If Lutoslawski erected an impenetrable wall of noise, then I reckon that’s exactly what he meant to do. Whether impenetrable or limpid, this CD provides some wonderful sounds to savour.

Paul Serotsky

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