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Witold LUTOSŁAWSKI (1913-1994)
Symphony No. 3 (1972-83)
Symphony No. 4 (1993)
Les Espaces du sommeil (1975) *
John Shirley-Quirk (baritone) *
Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra/Esa-Pekka Salonen
Recorded Los Angeles 1993 (Symphony No. 4) and 1985 remainder

This has already proved to be something of a modern classic of a recording. The original CBS issue, which came out in 1987, was followed by a reissue seven years later and now, nearly a decade on, here it is again in Sony’s Essential Classics series. Sony has taken the opportunity to revamp their previously minimal documentary details, adding recording dates and locations to this latest batch of reissues and that’s more than welcome news.

As are the performances. His last work, the Fourth Symphony receives a reading of genuine profundity and depth. Opening with such intimacy and reflective lyricism the line soon becomes more assertive, with block interjections, all the while illuminated by percussive glint and sectional colour. The ear is aware of the constant motion of the music and its felicity of conjunctions (the string figuration, the piano part, the scurrying high winds, the important almost personalised role the trumpet plays) whilst never losing the greater symphonic picture. In the central panel of this one-movement work the muted series of dynamics adds great weight to the reflective paragraphal points. When the big climaxes come they are excellent judged by Salonen who has the measure of both reflection and refraction in this symphony. His summoning up of the decisive, percussive, brass punctuating final moments is disquieting, abrupt and moving.

The Third Symphony again opens with a slow introduction. This is a longer work than the Fourth but there is also a powerful concision of symphonic argument at work here, rich in orchestral incident and a toccata-like drama embedded in it. I like the way Salonen brings out the almost-rudery of the trombone and the powerful climax. The sound quality is unchanged from previous issues. As for opposition, well Lutosławski wrote the work for the Chicago Symphony and Solti who premiered it in 1983. In 1992 the orchestra took it into the studios with Daniel Barenboim and theirs is slightly preferable to this recording – not least for the string weight and the tighter control Barenboim exercises. Les Espaces du sommeil was taken into the studio a decade after it had been written. The only negative note about this reissue is that Sony hasn’t provided the poem – Robert Desnos’ poem may be a surrealistic affair but it would have been good – to put it politely – had new listeners been able to read the text and listen to the composer’s complex, never straight-forward response to it. This performance is strong on atmospheric word painting, Shirley-Quirk’s evocative and serious singing, the subtle orchestration, a predilection for held string chords, constant inflection of the line, and a superbly graded set of climaxes.

If you missed the earlier opportunities to acquaint yourself with these towering statements you should do so now, without delay. The relative superiority of the Chicago Third shouldn’t put you off this laudable selection.

Jonathan Woolf


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