Witold LUTOSŁAWSKI (1913-1994)
Partita (version for violin and orchestra) (1984/1988) [17:47]
Interlude (1989) [7:09]
Chain 2 (1985) [19:38]
Chantefleurs et Chantefables (1990) [20:56]
Chain 1 (1983) [10:08]
Fujiko Imajishi (violin) (Partita, Chain 2)
Valdine Anderson (soprano) (Chantefleurs et Chantefables)
New Music Concerts Ensemble/Witold Lutosławski
rec. live, 24 October 1993, Premiere Dance Theatre, Toronto, Canada
NAXOS 8.572450 [75:38]

There is never a guarantee that this kind of thing will be a great performance, but the sense of poignancy around ‘last’ recordings will always be something of a draw. We are fortunate that what turned out to be Witold Lutosławski’s final appearance as a conductor was recorded by CBC, and while all of these pieces can be found in excellent studio recordings elsewhere in the Naxos catalogue this turns out to be a fine programme, well performed and very serviceable as a live recording.

The Partita was originally written for violin and piano, and while the orchestration is the composer’s own I’m not sure I prefer this version to the purity of the chamber version. The trademark orchestral colours are quite distinctive and very effective, but transcribed from piano notes the result somehow sound a bit leaden and dated. Fujiko Imajishi is an able soloist, and I’m glad her part is not overly spot-lit in the recorded balance – mixing with and melting into the upper sonorities of the orchestra where the score demands this effect. The central Largo is always a movingly emotive section, and both soloist and orchestra create a nice atmosphere here. The delicate passages in the final Presto are lovely, and the harp and tuned percussion create a remarkable halo around the soloist.

With this live recording we are treated to a wash of applause at the end of each piece, but audience noise is otherwise very low. It needs to be at the opening of the magical Interlude, which begins with impossibly quiet strings. The piccolo is a little heavy handed for the first few little interjections, but apart from one or two mildly abrasively tuned string entries this is a decent enough performance. Conceived as a ‘dialogue for violin and orchestra’, Chain 2 is wider ranging than the Partita, and the playful effects of soloist and a variety of stunning orchestral effects is vibrant and lively in this recording. With good energy and such a wide range of contrasts this is a fine performance filled with plenty of stunning moments, with all of that edgy advantage a good live recording should have.

Chantefleurs et Chantefables is a continuation of Lutosławski’s fascination with the poetry of Robert Desnos, beginning in the 1970s with ‘Les Espaces du sommeil’. This set of nine songs is filled with character and ranges in emotion from the perfumed romanticism of the opening La Belle-de-nuit to the sliding elusiveness of La Véronique, and including songs like L’Alligator which are rich in wit and warmly sardonic humour. The texts are unfortunately not given in the booklet, but Valdine Anderson’s singing is certainly one of the highlights of this disc. She doesn’t go too far out of her way in terms of ‘acting’ the various roles in a vocal sense, but the audience response at certain points certainly indicates some extra visual interaction. Her vocal quality is nicely pure, beautifully intonated and expressive, the orchestral accompaniments sensitive and potent by turns.

Potent indeed is the final work, Chain 1, which was written for the fourteen virtuoso London Sinfonietta players in the early 1980s during the period when Michael Vyner was their artistic leader. The ensemble playing might have been a bit tighter than it appears here in certain patches, but given once again the atmosphere of a live performance in which the players are clearly giving their all for their guest conductor/composer, and you are left with little cause for complaint.

This CD is more than just a souvenir of Witold Lutosławski’s last conducted concert. Despite the availability of ‘cleaner’ versions of these pieces in Naxos’s excellent Lutosławski series this recording can stand on its own two feet as an impressive testament to one of Poland’s legendary figures of 20th century music. It should certainly be added as a supplement to anyone’s Lutosławski collection, and belongs firmly shoulder to shoulder with his earlier studio recorded legacy on EMI.

Dominy Clements

More than just a souvenir.