Lutoslawski's instrument was the piano, but his mastery of
orchestration was second to none. The diversity of the works
on these two discs is impressive. It ranges from the neo-classicism
(or at least neo-Stravinskyism) of the Symphonic Variations
(1938), through the socialist realism of the First Symphony
(1947), to the Modernist works of the late 1950s and 1960. The
common thread that runs through everything is the sheer dexterity
of the composer in his use of the orchestra. Even in the earlier
works, where stylistic constraints keep many aspects of the
music locked in a kind of mythical 19th century,
the use of the orchestra is always right up to the minute. And
when he starts using his 'limited aleatory' techniques in works
such as Jeux Vénitiens, these too seem perfectly matched
to the instrumentation, as if the loosening of synchronisation
has had the effect of liberating the individual instruments.
It is this later music that is most interesting; at least to
me. The Symphonic Variations, First Symphony and Concerto
for Orchestra feel like a grounding in the composer's past before
the real business begins, starting with the incomparable Funeral
Music of 1958 and on to the Second Symphony of 1966-8, which
is perhaps his greatest work. That said, the composer's most
popular, or at least most performed, orchestral work, is his
Concerto for Orchestra, so perhaps these earlier pieces
do have an audience after all.
The format of the two discs is to begin with earlier works in
both cases before moving on to the later material, so if you
want to know what makes Lutoslawski distinctive, you'd probably
be better off starting the first disc on track 6 (Funeral
Music) and the second on track 4 (Jeux Vénitiens).
The performances are as good as any, which, considering how
much interest there has been in Lutoslawski from recording companies
in the years since his death, is no mean feat. The composer
leads the orchestra with a steady hand. Little of this music
requires overt interpretation; the scores (even the aleatory
ones) give enough detail that the composer's intentions can
be followed precisely at the podium. Despite a certain Impressionism
that informs much of the music, detail matters, and Lutoslawski
makes a point of bringing out the significant orchestral effects.
He is fond of large percussion sections and rasping brass, but
is also able to find the ideal balance between these potentially
disrupting forces and the strings and woodwind.
Great as these recordings are, it is worth bearing in mind what
they are not. One thing this release certainly is not is the
complete orchestral music of Witold Lutoslawski. Naxos are currently
undertaking such a project and it has already reached Vol.7.
The composer had almost twenty years of creative activity ahead
of him when he conducted these sessions in 1976/77. Of the later
orchestral scores, the three Chain works and the Third Symphony
Something else that this is not is new. The two discs were originally
released separately in the late 1970s. They were then re-mastered
and re-released in 1994. These were then reissued as a two disc
box on the EMI Double Forte label in 2000, and have now reappeared
in this 20th Century Classics series. This is still
the 1994 re-master, and good as it is, if you've heard these
discs before, don't expect anything new from this release.
That said, the sound quality is not at all bad. EMI sent their
own engineers to Poland for the sessions. They weren't recording
in digital by that stage, but the results are still convincing.
The worst that can be said is that the sound often seems slightly
muffled and the back of the orchestra, particularly the percussion,
seems strangely distant. The slightly dated sound is what distinguishes
these recordings from the more high-tech ones that have appeared
in recent years. From an interpretive point of view, it is nice
of have the composer at the podium, but every conductor who
has recorded this music since has heard these discs, and none
has strayed significantly from the model presented. An important
historical document then, but an enjoyable listen too.
see also review by John
Phillips of previous (Double Forte) release