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Witold LUTOSŁAWSKI (1913-1994)
Twenty Polish Christmas Carols [40.05]
Lacrimosa (1937) [3:37]
Five Songs (1957) [10:39]
Olga Pasichnyk (soprano) ¹
Polish Radio Chorus, Kraców ¹ ²
Jadwiga Rappé ³
Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra (Katowice)/Antoni Wit
Rec. Grzegorz Fitelberg Concert Hall, Katowice, 3-5 December 2001 (Carols, Lacrimosa), and 15 January 1997 (Songs).
NAXOS 8.555994 [54:22]

Forty minutes worth of Christmas Carols? If only these were the ones to softly caress our ears as we trawled the shops for treats: I feel the statistical incidences of ‘bauble rage’ in department stores during the festive season might be reduced significantly.

Collectors who have been gathering the excellent Naxos Lutosławski series will of course be snapping up this bargain without a second thought. They will not be disappointed, as will anyone dipping their toes into this unusual repertoire for the first time.

The Polish Christmas Carols were originally assembled and arranged for solo voice and piano in 1946. The orchestrations on this recording were made much later, being partially premièred in 1985, and completed by 1990. A version with texts in English does exist, but this recording has been made - thank goodness - with the original Polish. There are no texts or translations in the booklet, but they can be found online. As Christmas carols should be, these are simple, expressive songs based around the traditional story of the nativity. Lutosławski’s orchestrations are beautiful and sensitive, without being in any way sentimental or saccharine-sweet. There is a great deal of colour and contrast here, with an effective sound-palette which includes harp, piano, tuned percussion and gorgeous low winds. The harmonies are never left entirely untouched, and are often treated with deftly restrained moments of dissonance which serve to heighten the emotional effect. If you are in the mood to let them, these subtle pieces will take you by surprise and bring the tears to your eyes.

The programme continues almost seamlessly into the youthful Lacrimosa. After a serene opening solo, the ecstatic rise and fall of the chorus betrays something of the influence of Szymanowski. This miniature is one of two settings from a Requiem sequence which was composed in 1937 while Lutosławski was still a student, the second having been destroyed during the 1944 Warsaw Uprising – a salutary reminder that violence and war are no respecters of art or college homework.

The Five Songs bring us into a fairly early example of the idiom for which Lutosławski is best known, and are settings of Children’s Rhymes by the Lithuanian born poet Kazimiera Illakowicz (1892-1983). ‘The Sea’ illustrates the text with atmospheric sostenuto strings, and gently chiming, almost pointillist piano and harp notes. ‘Winter’ is another piece in which delicate string glissandi on sparing harmonies seems to make time stand almost still. ‘The Wind’, ‘Knights’ and ‘Church Bells’ are all illustrated with effectively programmatic instrumentation, providing contrast and impact with signature piano clusters, tremolando strings and the percussive edge of gongs and cymbals. ‘Avant Garde’ for its time, this music still sounds fresh and inspired, proving that a modern approach need not be transient in value.

These performances are beautifully sung and played by Antoni Wit’s Polish musicians, and this recording is another rich peacock feather in Naxos’s already heavily plumed hat. I shall be playing this disc a great deal over Christmas this year – it brings home the true spirit of the season, and makes one glad to be alive during the sparkling darkness of midwinter.

Dominy Clements

see also review by Hubert Culot

 

 



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