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CD: Crotchet

Witold LUTOSŁAWSKI (1913–1994)
CD 1
Symphonic Variations (1936/1939) [8:52]
Symphony No.1 (1941/1947) [24:43]
Musique funèbre (1954/1958) [13:30]
Symphony No.2 (1965/1967) [31:22]
CD 2
Concerto for Orchestra (1950/1954) [28:26]
Jeux vénitiens (1960/1961) [12:58]
Livre pour orchestre (1968) [21:12]
Mi–parti (1975/1976) [14:35]
CD 3
Preludes and Fugue for 13 solo strings (1970/1972) [33:31]
Trois Poèmes d’Henri Michaux (1963) [20:11]
Paroles tissées (1965) [13:51]
Postlude No.1 (1958) [4:03]
Louis Devos (tenor); Krakow Radio Chorus; Polish Chamber Orchestra; Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra/Witold Lutosławski
rec. May and June 1976, Polish Radio and TV Studios, Katowice (CDs 1, 2), Kraków (CD 3). ADD
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 9011 [3 CDs: 77:32 + 62:44 + 59:16]
Experience Classicsonline

This is a very generous and interesting set of nearly all of Lutosławski’s orchestral music up to 1976. It charts his progress from classical composer to the time that he was really coming to terms with his use of avant-garde techniques. These would only be fully assimilated in such late works as the last two Symphonies, the Piano Concerto and the Double Concerto for oboe and harp.
With its easy–going, folk-inflected, lyricism the Concerto for Orchestra has to be one of Lutosławski’s most popular works. Fully composed throughout, it’s an enjoyable entertainment, even if the tripartite last movement – Passacaglia, Toccata and Chorale – is about five minutes too long for the material employed. But it wasn’t this delightful work which brought the composer international fame – that fell to the deeply felt Musique funèbre, written to commemorate the 10th anniversary of Bartók’s death. This is a rich tapestry of writing for string orchestra, the textures becoming very thick as the music becomes more impassioned. The whole is a marvellous example of how Lutosławski can really sustain an atmosphere and build on the fact that he knows that he has gripped his audience. These two works, together with Jeux vénitiens were my introduction to Lutosławski’s music when Philips issued an LP of them in the late 1960s. Jeux vénitiens is the first work of his to use randomness in the synchronization of the separate parts. This is more obviously modernist than the music which precedes it and it’s a thrilling and brilliant composition. It was at about this time that the much underrated Grazyna Bacewicz blossomed into the major composer we know her to be, using avant-garde techniques and gestures. Having started with works which I first heard by this composer what of the other pieces?
The two earliest works here are the Symphonic Variations and the 1st Symphony. The Symphonic Variations is big in scope, if not in playing time. Its language is very late romantic – there’s something of Szymanowski about it, and on a couple of occasions the almost frenetic writing reminded me of Kodaly's Peacock Variations. This is very approachable and even more extrovert and approachable than the Concerto for Orchestra. Unlike the latter, it doesn't outstay its welcome. The 1st Symphony followed quite closely and its idiom is astringent folksy. The first movement will come as a shock for it's exactly what I would expect from a Kurt Schwertsik Symphony-non-Symphony type of thing he occasionally gives us. It's a violently extrovert and free-spirited piece, totally un- Lutosławski–like but very enjoyable and entertaining. The slow movement gets to grips with the emotions, building a big Prokofiev–like climax before returning to the more emotional music. The scherzo and finale return to the free-spirited world of the opening and bring the whole work to a raucous and very amusing conclusion. This is not what you would expect from this composer, but he is feeling his way and trying to find his voice so it is fascinating to hear the workings of his, as yet, unformed musical mind.
Postlude No.1 (from a set of three) has the feel of both the folk style and the more modern language Lutosławski was moving towards and which he utilises with such skill in both the Henri Michaux settings and Paroles tissées. The choral work, written for 20 part chorus and wind band, is an hypnotic experience, full of swirling mists and indeterminate vocal utterances. Written for Peter Pears – who made a fine recording of it on a Decca Headline LP of three of his (then) "recent" commissions – Paroles tissées is a very beautiful, almost erotic, setting of words by Jean-Francois Lebrun, in Lutosławski's most lyrical style. It was obviously tailored for Pears's voice and there's the declamatory as well as the long-breathed slow melody in a fairly high tessitura, both of which he could do so well. I have always thought that vocal music was Lutosławski's strong point and this work proves the marvellous singing quality of so much of his work. It is the total assuredness of these two pieces which make the 2nd Symphony seem the lesser composition for here Lutosławski's use of aleatory techniques takes over the whole work. The element of chance is an integral part of the "structrue" of the work. In two movements - Hésitant and Direct - what the composer does is to give instruments, groups of instruments, or whatever takes his aural fancy, a group of notes whose duration and start and finish are controlled by the conductor, who does not conduct in the conventional sense of the word, but directs the progress of the music. This seeming floundering goes on for about half an hour and, for me, it goes nowhere. At the end, the whole orchestra joins together for a big climax before the music falls back to the earlier, freer, music. But this is purely personal and I know many people who would disagree with me in my understanding of the piece. However, by the side of his later works, especially the superb 3rd and 4th Symphonies, this stands as more of an experiment than a finished composition, but he's certainly on the right track for the later works which are so satisfying.
Livre pour orchestre is a large-scale one movement piece which shows the composer to be fully in control of his material. The forward progress of the music is quite breathtaking and the logic he applies to his compositional method is profound. With the Preludes and Fugue we find the Lutosławski so well known today. This is a tour de force of string writing, the Preludes contrasting full, tutti, sound, with solo lines, almost in concerto grosso style. There is much more hesitation and directness to this music than anywhere in the 2nd Symphony. The fugue is a stupendous affair, multi-layered, thickly textured, dramatic and full of the most satisfying musical logic. Lutosławski is truly in his stride, with this work, as a major force to be reckoned with.
The most recent work in this set is Mi-Parti, premiered by the Concertgebouw Orchestra in 1976. This is a superb achievement, building on the success of the Livre. This one movement structure is held together by a fiercely controlled musical logic, allowing for huge climaxes and the most delicate of intimate moments.
It's good to welcome these performances back into the catalogue for they are very fine indeed and the music shows the genesis of a composer who was to become a major figure on the contemporary music scene. Louis Devos is the lyrical tenor in Paroles tissées, and whilst lacking the power of its dedicatee – Pears – he allows for more subtlety in his delivery. Both orchestras give of their best and the recording, which is over thirty years old, sounds as fresh as ever.
Bob Briggs


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