The title “Chain”, given to three works Lutoslawski composed in the 1980s, suggests connectivity, events and textures leading into others, often overlapping. Chain 3 is a short orchestral piece first performed in San Francisco in 1986 with the composer conducting. It is thus the most recent work on this disc, and like many Lutoslawski works, contains passages featuring a strong aleatoric element. Listening to this performance alongside Antoni Wit’s reading with the Polish National Radio Orchestra in the invaluable Naxos Lutoslawski series, I find the although two performances are quite different it’s impossible to choose between them. Gardner and the BBC Symphony Orchestra find more clarity of texture in the earlier pages of the work, where small instrumental groups are allowed to improvise around given musical cells. The actual sound of these passages tends to be more beautiful than the equivalent passages in the Polish performance too. Then in the conducted passages the virtuosity of the BBC players is breathtaking. The Polish players produce more dramatic climaxes, particularly at the two high points near the end of the piece, a sign, so it seems to me, that the pacing of the work is just that bit more convincing. This is no more than an impression, though, as the work is a highly complex one – and highly satisfying – within its short time span, and Gardner’s reading is deeply impressive and convincing, positively compelling the listener to return and explore the work anew.
As if to confound the critic – and the listener – comparing Gardner’s performance of the early Concerto for Orchestra with that conducted by Wit in the Naxos series, surprisingly dating from as long ago as 1996/7, I find in many places the opposite reaction. Here it is the Polish ensemble which produces the clearer, more analytical textures, and in a work in which orchestral colour is so important this might seem a real advantage. Yet once again the overall sound of the BBC Symphony Orchestra is so beautiful that one is seduced and convinced by it. Some of the work’s tendency to shock is blunted, but the very richness, a euphonious homogeneity of sound in this performance, leaves the listener in no doubt that the work is really beginning to find its place in the mainstream orchestral repertoire. In addition, Gardner and the BBC ensemble turn in climaxes of such enormous power that even the Polish players cannot match this time. I think Gardner manages better the diminuendo at the end of the short first movement, and the strings play the opening of the second movement scherzo with a lightness that more than justifies the insert notes reference to “almost Mendelssohnian playfulness”. This is one of the composer’s most popular works, and there have been several very fine recordings of it. The composer himself conducted a performance for EMI with the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra, a performance which has been available in a number of different guises over the years. It is stunning, though the recording is no longer up to the mark. Wit, with the same orchestra, is, as can be deduced, outstandingly fine, but I think this performance now leads the pack.
Lutoslawski also recorded in 1985 a magnificent version of the Symphony No. 3, with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra for Philips. He was a very fine conductor and his readings of his own works must be taken to be definitive in a very real sense. The symphony also features in Antoni Wit’s Naxos series, coupled with three other works, one of which is the gorgeous vocal work Les espaces du sommeil. I was won over to the symphony years ago when I first heard the composer’s version, and repeated listening for this review has only strengthened my admiration for the work. It is not a conventional symphony in any sense. In one extended movement, the first half seems to be an almost random selection of short, apparently unrelated musical events, often no more than gestures. The orchestral writing is ravishing, but it takes quite some time to come to terms with the music and to begin to see what the composer is driving at. A major climax – stunningly realised in this new performance – precedes what the Adrian Thomas, writing in the booklet, succinctly describes as the “onset of the main symphonic argument”. With only a little over a quarter of an hour to go one might think this dodgy timing on the composer’s part, but believe me, it really does work. The remainder of the symphony is increasingly dominated by lyrical string writing, though there is many an interruption, and the work as a whole might be seen as a struggle between the dramatic and the lyrical. Once the work is over one is convinced that the dramatic has won, but then, reflecting on the effect the work has on you, one is less and less sure. It is certainly a drama in the sense that one is gripped at the outset and pretty much compelled to follow where the music leads. I have to stress, though, that those looking for traditional symphonic growth and cogency will not find it here. You have to leave your symphonic prejudices at the door and just go with it. Most open minded listeners will, I think, find it a most compelling and satisfying experience.
This performance by the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Edward Gardner is, I think, the finest I have heard. Wit is very fine indeed, once again, but comparing the two performances leaves me with the feeling that he is less successful than Gardner at integrating all the disparate elements of this bewildering piece into a coherent whole. Lutoslawski himself is wonderful, but brilliantly though the Berlin Philharmonic plays, they seem less comfortable with the idiom than the BBC players, who play with consummate skill and, apparently, total conviction. The individual contributions are remarkably fine – this is very much another concerto for orchestra, in fact – and ensemble work is simply stunning. Climaxes are overwhelming, and I have never heard the remarkable final pages realised as well as this. All the more remarkable, then, that all this music seems to have been set down in only two days!
The CD is well presented, with a splendid photograph of the composer on the inside cover and an excellent note by Adrian Thomas. And where this issue clearly wins over all the competition is in the quality of the sound. I have only heard this Super Audio CD in simple stereo, but it really is magnificent, rich and natural and delivering the often stupendous climaxes with awesome power. The disc is announced as the first volume of a series of Polish music. If the remaining volumes are as fine as this we are in for a treat.