This fourth volume of Edward Gardner’s superb series of
Witold Lutoslawski, and the third volume of his orchestral music
echoes volume 2 almost exactly (see review),
with a concerto and a symphony and shorter pieces to open and
separate the larger masterpieces. To complete the set so far
you can read about the first orchestral volume here,
and the excellent disc with vocal works here.
This programme begins with the superb Mała Suite
or Little Suite, which manages to integrate folk music
and original sonorities into a work which was created under
the rules of Communist directives on acceptable style and content.
There are shades of Prokofiev and Stravinsky, but also a clear
sense of the kind of Polish lyrical heartland which you can
also hear in Panufnik’s earlier work, some of the themes
also foreshadowing works such as the Concerto for Orchestra.
Chandos’s house cello soloist of the day Paul Watkins
is excellent in the Cello Concerto, the drama of the
extended opening solo and its interruption with imperious and
irritable trumpets sounding more than ever like the prologue
to an opera without words. The spatial subtleties in the goings
on amongst the sections of the orchestra make the SACD element
in this recording a genuinely fascinating experience, the silence
sculpted with moments of darting light and colour. The transparency
of Lutoslawski’s orchestration might have given this work
a feeling of fragility and transience, but the opposite is true.
The Cello Concerto exerts a powerful grip on the imagination,
and with a palpable feeling of anticipation and the composer’s
highly selective dosage of release and reward this is one of
those pieces which can change your entire view about what music
can do. Such a fertile performance and recording as this makes
for compelling and at times truly shocking listening.
After this unnerving experience we are brought back only partially
to the style of Lutoslawski’s earlier work in the version
of Grave for cello with string orchestra. This is later
piece from 1981/82, but is relatively conservative in its rhythms
and techniques, a few momentary shooting glissandi being
one of the familiar fingerprints. The title would seem to suggest
something more lugubrious than the lively work which in fact
The Symphony No. 2 was written some years after the Concerto
for Orchestra, and is closer to the Livre pour orchestre
in its exploration of timbres and atmospheres. The two movements
are titled Hésitant and Direct, the former
combining and dividing various textures and sonorities, the
latter growing more integrated and organic shapes, glued differently
through the significantly greater use of strings and with waves
of pulsing and dramatic interjection. This second movement was
the first to be completed, and its magnificent sonic landscapes
are the place to try if you are seeking some convincing fragments.
The development of the first four minutes or so is one of Lutoslawski’s
truly glorious passages, and if your jaw refuses to drop then
you’d better get a check-up for tetanus.
Comparisons with alternative recordings have to be made, and
I invariably finding myself gravitating towards my former reference
of Antoni Wit on the Naxos label. His Little Suite and
the Symphony No. 2 both appear on Naxos 8.553169 and
both in very good performances from the Polish National Radio
Symphony Orchestra. The Chandos disc manages to deliver more
instrumental detail while at the same time heightening the atmospheres
in the symphony, the Polish trumpet players also hamming things
up distractingly here and there on the Naxos disc. I would put
Gardner’s performance about level pegging with that of
Jacek Kaspszyk on the excellent Opera Omnia series (see review),
the SACD recording perhaps tipping the balance in Gardner’s
favour, but not by much.
The Cello Concerto has quite a few competitors, the Naxos
version on 8.553625 again having plenty going for it, but in
no way as scary as Gardner’s recording, the more generalised
orchestral sound putting a kind of aural safety net between
us and Lutoslawski’s potent score. Antoni Wit also recorded
this piece for the Polish DUX label, and this Warsaw Philharmonic
performance/recording is a bit more vibrant and passionate.
With my ideas about the Cello Concerto completely transfixed
by Paul Watkins and the BBC Symphony Orchestra however, I feel
pretty secure in being able to put forward this Chandos version
against and above all others.
Collectors of this series will already have this volume firmly
in their sights, and no-one need hesitate in snapping it up.
Paul Watkins fans familiar with his more mainstream repertoire
might hesitate, but that would be a shame. If you fancy treating
your mind to some seriously stimulating sounds this is a splendid
journey on which to embark.