Witold LUTOSLAWSKI (1913-1994)
Mała Suite (1950) [10:13]
Concerto for Cello and Orchestra (1969-70)* [25:53]
Grave (1982)* [5:36]
Symphony No. 2 (1965-67) [29:51]
Paul Watkins (cello)*
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Edward Gardner
rec. 5-6 December 2011, Watford Colosseum, UK

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 unfolds.
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.
Dominy Clements 

Scary and splendid, a journey to delight, enlighten and unnerve. 

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