Witold LUTOSLAWSKI (1913-1994)
Silesian Triptych (1951) [9:28]
Lacrimosa (1937) [4:07]
Paroles Tissées (1965) [16:22]
Sleep, sleep (1954 [2:04]
Les Espaces du Sommeil (1975) [15 :11]
Chantefleurs et Chantefables (1990) [19:48]
Lucy Crowe (soprano); Toby Spence (tenor); Christopher Purves (baritone)
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Edward Gardner
rec. 23-31 March 2011, BBC Studio 1, Maida Vale, London
Sung texts with English translation provided
CHANDOS CHAN10688 [67:40]

At the end of 2010 I nominated the first volume in this series as my Record of the Month. If anything, this one is even finer.

The earliest work in this collection of vocal music is the Lacrimosa from 1937. This student work, so we learn from Adrian Thomas’s exemplary notes, was originally part of an unfinished Requiem setting, and is Lutoslawski’s only sacred piece. For solo soprano and orchestra, it sounds nothing like the mature composer, its harmonic vocabulary scarcely more advanced than that of the Requiem of Andrew Lloyd Webber, and I make no comment on the relative merits of each work when I say that they share a certain similarity of atmosphere. The performance is stunning, Lucy Crowe negotiating the high-lying phrases with radiant ease. This piece was new to me and I’ve returned to it many times, always with increasing pleasure.

Silesian Triptych is, in effect, a set of three folk song arrangements, and the advance in musical language is evident from the very first notes. It was with works such as this that Lutoslawski weathered the storm of political interference, creating something fresh, beautiful and moving whilst respecting the authorities’ demands that music be easily accessible to “the broad mass of the people”. The three Silesian folk songs deal with different aspects of love. The first and last are last are lively, whereas the middle one is a gentle lament for love lost, and closes with a touchingly tender, wordless passage from the singer. The melodies themselves are attractive, and the composer’s treatment of them, in particular the highly colourful and inventive orchestration, makes for a delightful work that, once again, positively invites the listener to return to it. Lucy Crowe is magnificent once again, as she also is in the touching miniature “Sleep, sleep”, from Four Children’s Songs of 1954.

By 1965, when Lutoslawski composed Paroles Tissées for Peter Pears, Polish artists had been granted to the right to greater freedom of expression. The sudden and violent turn towards modernism and experimentation that resulted can be perplexing. Jean-Francois Chabrun (1920-1997) was active politically and socially throughout his life, but it would be difficult to argue that his poetic work Quatre Tapisseries pour la Châtelaine de Vergi – Lutoslawski adopted the shortened title, Paroles Tissées (“Woven Words”) at his suggestion – is easily accessible to “the broad mass of the people”. The oppressive, tortured theme is more obscured than expressed by repeated phrases and disjointed, apparently unrelated images. The vocal line is very varied, much of it close to recitative in style, with a distinct move away from the extended melodic writing to be heard in the earlier works. The accompaniment, for strings, harp, piano and percussion, features passages of that controlled improvisation that became an important part of the composer’s later style, and which emphasises, rather than limits, the range of the composer’s remarkably fecund aural imagination. That feature is also in evidence in Les Espaces du Sommeil, originally written for Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, and recorded by him on Philips with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by the composer. The text, by Robert Desnos, deals with love, night and dreams. They come together in a text which is not dissimilar in manner to that of Chabrun, and which, for all its undeniable sincerity, seems dated now. Lutoslawski’s music has, however, guaranteed its immortality. The nocturnal sounds he conjures up from the orchestra, often with minimal means, are ravishing. There is no word painting as such – the cockerel features, for example, as he also does in Paroles Tissées, but you won’t hear him crowing in the orchestra – but the composer’s way with the word “sleep” as the work nears its close is wonderfully imaginative and inventive, and at the last, deeply affecting, both in the long slow vocalise to which he sets the word, and in the soft, caressing orchestral textures that support it. Toby Spence is the soloist in Paroles Tissées, and Christopher Purves in Les Espaces du Sommeil. Both works are monstrously difficult for the singer, and each one acquits himself remarkably well. Toby Spence has the requisite power, and a striking baritone range when necessary, and his performance of a work perhaps even more difficult than the other to put over strikes me as totally successful. Christopher Purves too, gives a most eloquent and touching reading of what is surely a twentieth-century masterpiece. Only direct comparison with Fischer-Dieskau reveals a little more fantasy and a marginally wider range of vocal colour in the older singer’s reading. The composer, too, whips up a rather more frenzied climax than we get here.

Lucy Crowe returns for the final work on the disc, Chantefleurs et Chantefables. Desnos is once again the poet in these nine short songs dealing with flowers and animals. The words, sophisticated though they be, might be thought of as appealing to children, and I’d like to think that the music would too. It’s certainly highly colourful, with Lutoslawski’s total mastery of the symphony orchestra once again in evidence. An alligator and a tortoise feature, both of which leave the composer plenty of scope for characterisation. But the flower poems stimulate his imagination too, and the final song is an astonishing aural evocation of no fewer than three hundred million butterflies.

No praise is too high for the contribution of the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Edward Gardner, and the recording is well up to the usual Chandos standard. Those already convinced by Lutoslawski will need no encouragement, and for everyone else I endorse this disc with all possible enthusiasm.

William Hedley

Magnificent music, superbly performed by an all-British team, and with outstanding Chandos sound and presentation to match.

See also review by Dominy Clements