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Witold LUTOSLAWSKI (1913-1994)
Concerto for Orchestra (1954) [30:58]
Chantefleurs et Chantefables (1991) [20:01]
Variations on a Theme by Paganini for Piano and Symphony Orchestra (1949/1978) [11:28]
Olga Pasiecznik (soprano)
Janusz Olejniczak (piano)
Orchestra Sinfonia Varsovia/Jerzy Maksymiuk
rec. March, April, May 2004, Polish Radio’s Witold Lutoslawski Recording Studio, Warsaw
BEARTON CDB029 [59:49]
Concerto for Cello and Orchestra (1970) [26:17]
Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (1988) [24:30]
Symphony No. 4 (1993) [21:52]
Robert Cohen (cello)
Ewa Poblocka (piano)
Orchestra Sinfonia Varsovia/Jerzy Maksymiuk
rec. January 2013, Polish Radio’s Witold Lutoslawski Recording Studio, Warsaw
BEARTON CDB052 [72:39]

Nearly ten years separate these two volumes, but their distinctive appearance makes them desirable as a pair. I’m not quite sure what the Dutch ‘De Stijl’ theme has to do with Lutoslawski, but these discs certainly stand out from the crowd. Strong competition in this repertoire has emerged from a variety of quarters, but the highest standards of production and performance plus a feel of these deriving from the wellspring makes these recordings a realistic choice.
Starting with the Concerto for Orchestra, my main choice these days would be the recording from Edward Gardner’s Chandos series, CHSA5082. Both of these recordings are excellent, and honours are about equal for the dramatic urgency of the opening. The BBC Symphony Orchestra does have the edge in terms of overall sonorous weight, though the Warsaw brass section is tremendous. The sparkle and technical effervescence in the BBC’s second movement Capriccio is hard to beat, though the Warsaw recording only sounds a little more restrained through the greater distance between microphones and players, providing a more realistic if marginally less spectacular picture. This pays dividends in the creepy mystery with which the Passacaglia opens. Gardner is a tad slower here, the low notes initially less distinctive, but building inexorable tension. The BBC solos are perhaps of higher quality, but I love the quality in the Polish orchestral colour further on, where those high wind screams are really chilling.
Chantefleurs et Chantefables stands or falls on the quality of its soloist, and Olga Pasiecznik is superb. Her voice is a little lighter in tone than Lucy Crowe on CHAN10688, and while Crowe’s French accent is more convincing I’m not sure I don’t prefer Pasiecznik’s less operatic touch. These judgements often boil down to questions of taste. I suspect that Crowe would win if this were a singing competition, but more than half of your audience would have fallen in love with Olga and the press probably split down the middle. This is a performance which succeeds through beauty rather than overt drama, though we miss very little in the vocal characterisations composed so expertly by Lutoslawski, and the orchestral moods are set perfectly. The first volume concludes with the massively entertaining Variations on a Theme by Paganini, and the wit and humour leaps out at us from Janusz Olejniczak’s piano from the outset. This version’s 11:28 compares dramatically with Louis Lortie on CHSA5098, who comes in at a rattlingly swift 8:44. This has more to do with the slowness of the slowest variation, in which time stands almost still in the Warsaw recording, Edward Gardner and Lortie preferring to maintain a more organic flow. There is much to be said for some of the greater extremes of contrast in Maksymiuk/Olejniczak’s performance, and it does yield some sublime moments. The end result is more a piano concerto with a slow movement rather than a series of variations, but with such compelling playing this is hard to resist.
The real grist of this review is for the newest of these releases, which opens with Robert Cohen’s stunning playing of those spare, lonely notes which introduce the Cello Concerto. Cohen is up closer than Paul Watkins on CHSA5106, and Cohen’s rhetorical expression is if anything even more communicative - those repeated notes by no means a ‘waiting for’ feature, with each note connected to the next through its own resonance, each recurrence filled with memory and implication. Listen to those little vocal sighs at 1:20, creating a genuine human voice when compared against Watkins’ more abstract playing. The orchestra is again superb as one would expect; the balance between soloist and the rest is detailed and realistic, the initial brass invasion of the soloist’s ruminations brutal, all of those theatrical brushstrokes skilfully eloquent. It’s a shame that this recording is all on one track compared to Chandos’s four, but this is a minor detail. Cohen takes the laurels in this case.
This Belarton release also delivers a very fine recording of the Piano Concerto, though in this case the solo instrument does rather dominate the balance to the detriment of the orchestra. I’ve never understood why anyone would go for this kind of effect. Comparing with CHSA 5098 you hear the piano blend with the orchestral textures, adding colours from which the wind section can emerge like momentary fireworks or the strings gather around like swarms of insects. You can still hear Louis Lortie at all of those crucial moments, but you would hardly guess there were orchestral instruments involved at the opening of the second movement from the Warsaw recording. Yes, this is a very good performance indeed, the piano does sound spectacular in stereo and surround mode and things do even out when the orchestra is playing full-force, but Gardner/Lortie win here for the reason outlined above - so it’s 1/1 so far.
The Symphony No. 4 again appears on a single track with this Warsaw recording, coming in at about 30 seconds shorter than Gardner’s five tracks on CHSA 5098, which is as little as makes no difference. The opening of the Gardner is one of those magical musical moments which holds onto you like a dream. This Chandos recording is still the front-runner in my opinion, but Maksymiuk’s Warsaw Sinfonia exerts a different kind of gripping intensity which would still keep me happy on my desert island. The Warsaw violins are strangely more present but less distinct than the BBC group, and those downward glissandi during the fifth minute while happening amidst remarkable tension are less clear. This performance has the vibrant feel of a live event, and the sense of an unfolding narrative is truly stunning. There is equal drama in the BBC Symphony Orchestra performance. The subtle detail in the playing and recording delivers plenty of goose-bump moments, but the ultimate effect is more scenic than narrative. This is one of those subjective and hard to define feelings, but with Gardner I come away with a sensation of having had the grand cinematic experience. This is highly satisfying, but with Maksymiuk and the Warsaw Sinfonia I come away as if having been sat down by the Ancient Mariner and told what it’s really all about. It’s the difference between a journey of the senses and one of the mind and the imagination. I love the experience delivered by each of them, but feel the need to keep both in order to be able to feed whichever part of my sonic spirit needs feeding most.
I’ve kept comparisons to just one alternative artist’s series in this case, in part because of the equal playing field when it comes to SACD playback, but also since it is pretty much Edward Gardner against the rest of the world as things stand at the moment in this repertoire. There are many excellent alternatives on a variety of labels, and you could do far worse than seek out Antoni Wit’s recordings on Naxos, Jacek Kaspszyk on CD Accord, Esa-Pekka Salonen on Sony Classics or the composer’s own conducting from EMI or Brilliant Classics. While this Belarton release enters a fairly busy market it does make a strong and sometimes a spectacularly powerful argument for itself. Releases from this quarter need to be kept under close scrutiny in hopes of further volumes.
Dominy Clements