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. 29-31 March 2011, Studio 1, BBC Maida Vale Studios, London
CHANDOS CHAN 10688 [67:40]

Edward Gardner continues his excellent series of Lutoslawski recordings for Chandos, with the orchestral works release already having achieved Recording of the Month status.

In a vibrant recording, the lively Silesian Triptych makes for a marvellous curtain raiser, its folk rhythms and colourful orchestration granted full impact. The earliest work in this programme, Lacrimosa, is a terrific vehicle for soprano Lucy Crowe. This is Lutoslawski’s only sacred piece, and the only surviving fragment of a planned but never completed Requiem. If you know and love Szymanowski’s Stabat Mater then this is a wonderful place to extend the experience.

Paroles tissées or ‘Woven Words’ was one of Lutoslawski’s early pieces in the distinctive style which made his name a force to be reckoned with in the 20th century. Generating maximum effect from a relative minimum of instrumental means, the textures and harmonic worlds generated take one into realms of dreamlike imagination – often beautiful, sometimes fearful and even shocking. Toby Spence’s delivery from the drama of ‘a thousand black horses” to the chilling dark/light of “Sleep this pallor...” is excellent throughout.

Sleep, sleep brings us back from the brink, returning to a simpler world of children’s song, but introducing a thread of directness of expression which shines its light on later works such as Chantefleurs and Chantefables. Between these lyrical masterpieces we are given one of Lutoslawski’s great works from the 1970s, Les Espaces du sommeil. Christopher Purves’s baritone is perfectly suited to the transparency of the orchestration in this work, his tone often light and even breathless in expression. He also wins the prize for most convincing French accent. The title translates as ‘The Spaces of Sleep’, and once again the imagery is surrealist and dreamlike, the fragmentary moments of birdlike filigree and dark atmosphere in the orchestra moving and unsettling.

The programme is concluded with the longest and most recent piece on the disc, Chantefleurs et Chantefables, which again brings us back from chasms of epic profundity to more charming subjects. These two last pieces share Robert Desnos as the author of their texts, but the inner life of the shorter songs of Chantefleurs et Chantefables is one more of theatre and operatic stagecraft than abstract landscapes of the imagination. Animals and plants are brought to life, the character of their personality or movement indicated in the orchestration and vocal lines. Lucy Crowe is marvellously in tune with the psychology behind these portraits, and ranging from a darting grasshopper which is both near and far, beauteous roses and their slightly obsessive picker, to the sneakiest of Alligators.

These pieces are familiar through very good recordings such as that on Naxos 8.554283, which has the Silesian Triptych and Chantefleurs et Chantefables alongside Venetian Games and the Symphony No.1. Antoni Wit and his musicians are very good, but Edward Gardner is in a different league in terms of subtlety, and the balance of the vocal solo against the orchestra is more realistic in the Chandos recording. Likewise with Paroles tissées and Les Espaces du sommeil paired on Naxos 8.553423. I’ve known and held these Polish performances in high regard for a long time – and still do, but this Chandos newcomer brings me to places I hadn’t yet discovered through the Antoni Wit performances. Piotr Kusiewicz sounds almost ecclesiastical by comparison in Paroles tissées, and Christopher Purves is also stronger and more tonally accurate in comparison with Adam Kruszewski in Les Espaces. The Last Concert (see review) is also a moving souvenir for Chantefleurs, but as a live performance with the voice apparently slightly ‘off-mic’ and with flashes of distortion in the peaks on the recording this doesn’t really compete in the same field as the Chandos version.

All vocal texts are printed in the booklet in their original language and in English translation, and the whole package is nicely designed as one would expect. With the best lineup of soloists around and the BBC Symphony Orchestra on top form, this was always going to be something a bit special, but it exceeds even my expectations. Like a good novel or a potent poem, it’s the kind of recording which you emerge from blinking, as if from a darkened cinema into the light of day. In other words, it could quite conceivably change your view of the world. Even if it’s only for a moment – and how long is a moment?

Dominy Clements

Total immersion Lutoslawski – really magical.