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Witold LUTOSŁAWSKI (1913-1994)
CD 1
Symphonic Variations (1938) [8:52]
Symphony No. 1 (1947) [24:43] 
Funeral Music (1958) [13:30]  
Symphony No. 2 (1966-1967) [31:22]  
CD 2
Concerto for Orchestra (1954) [28:27] 
Venetian Games (1961) [12:58] 
Livre pour Orchestre (1968) [21:12] 
Mi-Parti (1976) [14:35]
CD 3 
Preludes and Fugue for Strings (1972) [33:32]
Trois Poèmes d'Henri Michaux (1963) [20:11] 
Paroles tissées (1965) [13:51]
Postlude No. 1 (1958) [4:03]
Louis Devos (Tenor, Paroles tissées), Kracow Polish Radio/TV Chorus (Trios Poèmes d'Henri Michaux)
Polish Radio National Symphony Orchestra/Witold Lutosławski, except Preludes and Fugue for Strings: Polish Chamber Orchestra/Witold Lutosławski
rec. Polish Radio & TV Studios, Katowice, May-June 1976, December 1977 (CDs 1, 2), Krakow (CD3), Poland.
EMI CLASSICS TRIPLE 2153182 [3 CDs: 78:39 + 77:32 + 72:04]


Experience Classicsonline

Several of these pieces have been available on CD before, but with this 3 CD collection we now have a major survey of Lutosławski’s orchestral music up to the early 1970s, all conducted by the composer, in one place. Competition at the budget price range at which this series is aimed has until now been pretty much sewn up by Naxos’s series conducted by Antoni Wit, but if you want to collect all of the works on these three discs you will need to buy all six of the Naxos releases and put up with the fine pleasure of having a good deal more besides.

The earlier analogue recordings on this EMI set still sound very good indeed. With the Naxos recordings all having been made from the mid to late 1990s you do get a greater sense of consistency, but at no point did I feel let down in the set presented here. The Naxos sound does have greater dynamic range, wider stereo separation and transparency, but more as a question of degree than as a deciding factor. The elements of Stravinsky in the Symphony No.1 come across very strongly with Wit, but Lutosławski never holds back with this early work, and is equally if not more dramatic at times. His orchestra certainly sounds darker and more menacing, where Wit seems to find a greater sense of light and playfulness. The Funeral Music sees Lutosławski exploring the dodecaphonic serialism of Schoenberg, while never entirely abandoning, and indeed with great skill incorporating his natural inclination for tonal grounding and development. Lutosławski’s version is truly cataclysmic in the opening Prologue, and the playing is gripping throughout in this version. Wit’s Naxos recoding has the advantage of being split into the four tracks of each named section. His opening is more secure and refined, but doesn’t reach quite the hair-raising horror climaxes that Lutosławski achieves. Wit is more romantic –relatively speaking a perfumed wreath to Lutosławski’s dark, damp terminality; though these is no escaping the grim message in both recording’s final Epilogue. 

Lutosławski wrote his symphonies in two sections, claiming that the more usual three movement pattern was too exhausting. This doesn’t weaken the effect of the incredible Symphony No.2, which includes those passages which give greater freedoms to the musicians, and some of the aleatoric effects by which we recognise this composer the most. I find it hard to choose between the two versions. Wit follows the first movement’s title of Hesitant and sounds like an explorer moving in a world of danger, where Lutosławski gives the sensation of delicate virtuosity in progress. The sliding strings of the second movement, Direct, are again more urgent with Lutosławski, and you would expect him to have the more compact timing. In fact, Wit undercuts in the first movement, but is indeed a whole minute longer in the second. I love Lutosławski’s sonorities in this masterpiece of a movement – a rich chaos which transforms the orchestra into a huge organic magnet of sound – a ball of free flowing iron filings which always manage to point in the same direction. Wit is good too, but I don’t have quite the same sense of unyielding power with the Naxos recording. 

The Concerto for Orchestra was written while Communist rule in Poland still made the creative freedoms to be found in Lutosławski’s later work forbidden and unthinkable. Nevertheless, the composer found ways of creating powerful expression – smuggling in dissonance and a feeling of rebelliousness while keeping to the Bartók mould of using folk material and conventional three-movement form. The 1970s recording suffers a little at the highest peaks of volume, but as with the rest of the works in this set still sounds wonderfully fresh. At price-no-object one of my favourite recordings for this piece is with Daniel Barenboim and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on Erato in 1993, but there are plenty more decent recordings of this justly popular work. Antoni Wit is also very strong in this piece, and the clarity in the recording also brings out the little threads of folk melody to greater effect. Who would want to be without the conductor’s own performance though? The opening colour with the pizzicato bass and harp in the opening of the third movement’s Passacaglia is still the best on record to my mind, and the build-up is wonderfully excruciating. This version is something which has its own sense of drama and excitement, and is a recording from which many have rightly taken their lead. 

With Venetian Games we truly enter the aleatoric world which was to become a defining and highly influential aspect of Lutosławski’s work. With the composer at the helm, you know the effects in this and the wonderful Livre pour orchestra are just what he was after, and even now I don’t have quite the same thrill from any other recording of these works. Mi-parti is one of those pieces which, if you’ve never heard it before, may give you a fright by seeming to emanate from somewhere you recognise, but can’t quite catch or define. It seems to coalesce in the air as if it had always existed, just requiring the composer’s imagination and conducting ability to give it corporeal form. Lutosławski’s recording may not be entirely perfect: there are one or two intonation issues, and the balance isn’t entirely seamless, but I love this recording with a passion. Antoni Wit is very good as well, but his instrumental solos are fatter and more well-fed, his lines more Brucknerian; where Lutosławski maintains a kind of hunger and intensity which insinuates deeper into the soul.

The Preludes and Fugues for 13 solo strings receives a closer recording than the grander symphonic orchestral sounds in disc 2 and there are a few bumps and squeaks here and there, but this is white-hot music making. With the Trois Poèmes d'Henri Michaux the introduction of a chorus brings in a different dimension, with the kinds of vocal shapes and textures which were also taken and developed in different directions by Penderecki. There is a realistic perspective in the recording which I appreciate greatly, the chorus and orchestra very much equal partners. This is also true of the Naxos recording, the choir perhaps a little more present in the balance, but with certainly a very highly disciplined bunch under Antoni Wit. With the advance of time, it has to be said that the more recent singers seem a little more comfortable with the idiom, but this is not a point I would want to labour too strongly. I find Lutosławski’s subtle directness of utterance quite unsettling in his choral writing, especially in dreamlike movements such as the final Repos dans le malheur. There is also quite a dramatic imploration in Bernard Jacobson’s booklet notes: “In the outer movements, resist the temptation to turn up the volume, lest you do violence to the fragile magic of these elusive utterances”.

Where Lutosławski’s recording of Paroles tissées has the authentically nasal Frenchness of Louis Devos, Antoni Wit employs the richer tones of Piotr Kusiewicz, whose French is, it has to be said, not especially wonderful. Pitting the two against each other, and it’s easy to hear which you can understand the least. Again, the Naxos release has each text on a separate track, and I don’t understand why EMI couldn’t be bothered to do the same. The final work of the set is the Postlude no.1, which is one of a series of pieces which has a kind of transitional feel – a symphonic sketch. This one has a sense of nocturnal drama, but neither the special effects or the harmonic movement are in any way conclusive or resolved. 

What is conclusive is that this is a ‘must have’ if you are in any way intrigue or inspired by the Polish avant-garde in the 1960s and 70s, and Lutosławski in particular. I have lived with and enjoyed the Naxos/Antoni Wit recordings for many years now, but coming back to these ‘originals’ has rekindled some of the excitement I remember feeling on hearing these pieces for the first time. For sure, the recordings have a few rough edges and not everything is perfect, but in fact I was pleasantly surprised by the high standards maintained throughout the recordings on this set. This well-filled collection is now something of an historic classic, and while it misses out on a big chunk of this composers later major works it will provide you with a massive introduction and hopefully leave you wanting more. My own minor memory of Lutosławski was that of his self-effacing resourcefulness. At the R.A.M. in the 1980s, Paul Patterson managed to organise a visit by the great man, and all of us composition students were there hanging on every ounce of the experience. During one of the talks, Witold wanted to demonstrate some musical material on the grand piano, but someone had forgotten to unlock the thing. A poor flunky was sent to find the key, but, entirely unruffled, the noble old genius in his immaculate suit spotted a cheap old brown upright behind a curtain, and played his music sat on the side of the stage – remaining there even after the precious Steinway had, with breathless and abject apologies, been liberated. This I am sure was a small echo of the spirit of that Polish underground survival instinct, and I have a feeling he rather liked it ...

Dominy Clements



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