Witold LUTOSLAWSKI (1913-1994)
Symphonic Variations (1936-38) [9:29]
Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (1987-88)* [26:20]
Variations on a Theme of Paganini (1978)* [8:44]
Symphony No. 4 (1988-92) [22:24]
Louis Lortie (piano)*
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Edward Gardner
rec. 29-30 June 2011, Assembly Hall, Walthamstow, UK
CHANDOS CHSA 5098 [67:25]
With this second volume of Witold Lutoslawski’s orchestral music, we reach the third of an excellent series conducted by Edward Gardiner on the Chandos label. The Vocal Works disc is reviewed here and here, and volume 1 of the Orchestral Works here.
The Symphonic Variations open an excellent 3 CD set of Lutoslawski’s Orchestral Music from EMI (see review). This is the kind of set any fan of 20th century Polish music would have by default, and this BBC Symphony Orchestra recording doesn’t really replace it, other than offering stunning sound quality and remarkable detail. Lutoslawski’s conducting shows verve equal to that of Gardner, with the latter also generating greater extremes of mood, witnessed by a slightly longer duration compared to the composer’s 8:52.
The Symphonic Variations also open the Naxos CD, 8.553169, which carries the Piano Concerto. This is part of an excellent series conducted by Antoni Wit, whose Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra has this music under its skin. The recording is a little muffled and distant when compared to the Chandos version however, and the Symphonic Variations sometimes sound a little heavy as a result. Piotr Paleczny is a fine soloist in the Piano Concerto, but unless budget is a consideration the lack of detail in the sound discounts this version. More recent releases will provide sterner competition, such as Leif Ove Andsnes’s Shadows of Silence album which I unfortunately don’t have to hand. The last of Lutoslawski’s concertante works, the Piano Concerto is a marvel of quicksilver orchestral colour and conversational interaction between soloist and instruments which often appear in chamber-music contexts, but in music which can expand into the most romantic sounding and large-scale of gestures. Louis Lortie’s elegant touch is perfect for this piece, capable of stunning power but also reflecting the spirit of Rachmaninov and other greats in his feel for Lutoslawski’s personal but tradition-aware idiom. I love the balance in this Chandos recording, which makes the piano present and full, but placed in relation rather than in opposition to the orchestra. This width and depth of sonic effect makes for an extremely satisfying listening experience, and you can easily lose yourself in the piece’s sprightly intricacies and sometimes overwhelming passages of movingly expressive warmth.
The Variations on a Theme of Paganini was originally written in 1941 for piano duet, and Lutoslawski used to play this and other pieces with fellow composer Andrzej Panufnik, scraping a living as café musicians during the war years. The score was the only one of Lutoslawski’s to survive the Warsaw Uprising in 1944, and the version for piano and orchestra was made in 1978. Louis Lortie is witty and refined, and as a moment of light relief between the concerto and symphony this is well programmed. The Variations is a work of substance and more than a mere filler, but the character of the piece is geared more towards entertainment than experiment, and everyone responds to the piece with breathtaking verve and a palpable sense of fun in this recording.
The inspired Symphony No. 4 has appeared in excellent recordings such as the ‘original’ version with Esa-Pekka Salonen on Sony Classical (see review), which should not be ignored. Comparing Gardner’s recording with the NFM Wroclaw Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Jacek Kaspszyk on CD Accord (see review), and I’m torn between the sheer emotional impact of Kaspszyk’s massed forces, and the more subtly affecting feeling generated by Gardner’s quieter moments and instrumental solos. Hearing Gardner and the BBC Symphony Orchestra has me discovering this piece all over again and sensing things I hadn’t experienced in other recordings. The opening for instance, is the most world-stoppingly beautiful version I’ve ever heard. Kaspzyk is easier and more natural in some details, such as the melting downward glissandi, and while Gardner creates marvellous sounds the Wroclaw brass remains unbeaten. Gardner generates more finessed intensity at certain moments, but at the cost of the sheer physical impact which Kaspszyk shows us the music can have. His winds wail and cry with chilling character, and the strings have a bite and intensity which always brings tears to my eyes. Gardner is also tremendous, but the rawness and sense of connection which generates such emotional turmoil in me with that other recording isn’t quite there with the BBC SO.
With a spectacularly good Chandos 5.0 SACD recording and the usual high production and presentation values this is a release which followers of Gardner’s Lutoslawski series and fans of good 20th century music should snap up without hesitation. You certainly won’t find anything lacking in any of the performances, and in all cases they occupy the top drawer when it comes to all and any of these pieces. My preference in the Symphony No. 4 for Jacek Kaspszyk takes nothing away from Gardner’s BBC SO achievement. If I hadn’t already encountered the earlier release I would be giving Chandos an AAA+ rating instead of merely AAA, but if this one work is something for which you have a special passion then I would urge you to seek out and own CD Accord ACD 161-2. The world is big enough for both.
Tremendous performances and recording.