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REVIEW Plain text for smartphones & printers

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Witold LUTOSŁAWKSI (1913-1994)
Polish Christmas Carols

Piotr Kusiewicz (tenor)
Waldemar Malicki (piano)
rec. Radio Gdansk Studio, 14 January 1986. DDD.
Texts not included
DUX DUX0383 [37:48]

If you are looking for something unusual this Christmas, this could be what you are looking for. There are, however, several caveats that I must get out of the way first:

- The playing time is disgracefully short for a full-price release. It’s little consolation to report that the playing time is actually 38:03, a few seconds longer than stated.
- There are no texts.
- These carols also exist in a version for solo soprano, female choir and orchestra, which many will prefer.
- The orchestral version is available on a budget-price recording from Naxos, with other works by Lutosławski adding up to a more substantial playing time.

The Polish Carols were assembled in 1946, mostly derived from the folk collection of Father Marcin Michał Mioduszewski, with two from the similar collection of Oskar Kolberg. The version for tenor and piano, as recorded by Dux, is an alternative to the version for soprano and piano, also recorded by Dux (DUX0961/2, 2 CDs, with other Songs). The composer made his own orchestration of seventeen of the carols in 1985, adding the remaining three in 1989.

That version for soprano, female choir and orchestra has been recorded on Naxos (8.555994, with Lacrimosa and Five Songs for solo female voice and 30 solo instruments). Like the Dux recordings it offers authentic Polish performances, directed by Antoni Wit. I listened to this performance after the Dux and whereas I was entertained by the solo versions, I was enthralled by the choral settings and by the all-too-short Lacrimosa and songs which follow. I’m thoroughly in agreement with Herbert Culot who described the Naxos CD as ‘a gem of simplicity and subtlety … A beautiful if unusual Christmas offering’ – review – and Dominy Clements, who made it a Bargain of the Month. See also David Barker’s Beyond the Carols.

The Naxos playing time is still short of full respectability, at 54:22, but longer than the Dux and the budget price compensates. It can be yours for as little as 4.99 if you download from, which is where I listened to it streamed in lossless sound. It comes with the pdf booklet and though this doesn’t contain the texts, it will direct you to where they can be found, with translations, online. Lutosławski completists will also find it included in a 10-CD Naxos set (8.501066).

There is another recording of this choral and orchestral version, with David Zinman conducting the BBCSO and the Philharmonia Chorus. Formerly available as a Sony CD (88697115612, with Rodrigo Retablo de Navidad and Rouse Karolju) it’s now download only in the UK, though ArkivMusic have the CD. It’s a little more spiced up than the Naxos – frankly a little too sweet for me in places but you may like sweetness for Christmas.

The Dux recording is certainly free from that sort of cloying sweetness. The performances are good: I have never encountered either performer before, though I see that Piotr Kusiewicz has recorded Lutosławski with one of the prime exponents of his music, Antoni Wit. He puts plenty of expression into his singing but, even so, I missed the greater variety of the orchestrated versions, though I played the Dux before the Naxos.

Whichever version you choose, you may find yourself thinking the music more familiar than you expected. W zlobie lezy, for example (He is lying in a manger: track 6; No.8 of the orchestrated settings) will be familiar to English ears as Infant holy, infant lowly, though Lutosławski’s is a simpler setting than we are used to from Messrs Willcocks, Ledger and Cleobury at King’s. Kusiewicz’s singing, too, sounds both more vital and much more folksy than the Naxos performers – much more so than those on Sony – and I can imagine that many will prefer it, especially as the piano part – very much of the mid-twentieth-century – is more in the manner that we expect from Lutosławski than the more conventional orchestrated versions.

There’s something closer in these solo performances to the kind of folk-masses that were composed in Eastern Europe, such as Ryba’s Czech Christmas Mass and Missa Pastoralis (Naxos 8.554428). If you haven’t yet heard that recording, I recommend it as a really unusual and enjoyable Christmas experience. There are other highly recommendable versions on Arco Diva – review and purchase linkreview and purchase link. The second of these offers the better value. In similar vein there’s the Slovak Edmund Pascha’s Christmas Mass: I can’t find a current CD but subscribers can stream a version from Musica Bohemica, with some of the fun filtered out, from Qobuz, where it can be downloaded for 6.39. Amazon UK have the download, albeit in mp3 only, for 4.69.

The Dux recording was made as long ago as 1986 but still sounds well. It places tenor and piano right in front of you and needs to be played at a slightly lower volume than usual for comfort. Don’t get excited that it comes in a round-cornered jewel case: despite appearances, it isn’t an SACD.

The notes, in Polish and English, are informative both about the composer in general and these carols in particular. The lack of texts, however, surely presents a problem even for Polish listeners and could well be the reason for Anglophones to reject the CD.

I shall certainly be listening to the Naxos recording more often than to this Dux release, but the appeal is not all one-sided, even with that ridiculous playing time.

Brian Wilson

The Angels said to the Shepherds [1:46]
It was already Midnight [1:51]
Jesus, Lovely Flower [1:52]
Hola, Hola, Shepherds from the Fields [2:24]
Hey, Hey, Thou Lily Virgin Mary [1:51]
He is lying in a Manger [2:18]
When Christ was born [3:04]
They hurried to Bethlehem [0:51]
Tiny Jesus [1:25]
Hey! We Rejoice [0:29]
When the Lovely Maiden [2:32]
Hey, On the Day of the Nativity [1:11]
And what (to do) with this Child? [1:23]
We Shepherds too [1:35]
The Little Babe [2:33]
Sleep, Little Jesus [2:32]
The Gentle Shepherds [0:51]
Of the Lord’s Birth [1:52]
The Most Blessed Maiden walked on Earth [2:45]
God is born [2:52]


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