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Witold LUTOSŁAWSKI (1913-1994)
Concerto for Orchestra [27:55]
Little Suite (Mała Suita) [9:32]
Symphony No. 4 [18:43]
NDR Symphony Orchestra/Kryzstof Urbański
rec. 17-19 December 2014, Laeiszhalle Hamburg (Concerto) and 21-23 June 2015, Rolf-Liebermann-Studio NDR (Little Suite and Symphony)
ALPHA-CLASSICS 232 [56:15]

It’s long been a mystery to me why a fabulous piece like this Lutosławski Concerto for Orchestra hasn’t become a major favourite – like its Bartók namesake – with orchestras everywhere. Yes it’s difficult; but then so are plenty of other works, and there’s nothing in the idiom of this 1950 work to alarm anyone who can enjoy Britten or Copland, for example.

Whatever the impediment — my guess it’s just the composer’s name — this is a thrilling and deeply original piece which moves from its hefty opening statement through to the chorale conclusion with no let-up in the flow of inspiration and brilliant ideas. The young Polish conductor Kryzstof Urbański clearly has a genuine affinity for this music, and in the NDR (North German Radio) Symphony Orchestra, he has a virtuoso ensemble of the highest quality at his disposal. The result is a dramatic and very exciting account of the work.

On reflection, it’s significant that I mentioned Britten above, because for me the most striking part of the work is the Passacaglia that begins the final movement. Starting with a barely audible statement of the theme down in the basses, this movement has an unmistakable kinship with the great passacaglia in Peter Grimes – premiered just a few years previously.

The Little Suite was new to me, but turned out to be a delight. The opening has a chirpy piccolo solo — accompanied entertainingly in completely the wrong key — which is then assaulted by crunchy chords that appear to have escaped from The Rite of Spring. There are three more short movements: a whirlwind Hurra Polka, a haunting Piosenka (Song) with melancholy woodwind solos, and a final Taniec (Dance) which is bound to remind you of the penultimate movement of the Janáček Sinfonietta. Like the Concerto, this is powerfully attractive music, superbly scored and full of the composer’s own very special brand of bitonality.

The Fourth Symphony is a true masterpiece, first performed in 1993, though completed five years earlier. It takes the form of a single movement, although in numerous sections. The opening is mysterious, dominated by the lugubrious clarinet theme, which, with its groups of quicker notes, gives rise to many of the musical ideas that unfold as the piece progresses. There are passages of enormous, mounting tension, moments of eerie calm and examples of what Lutosławski described as ‘limited aleatorism’. That is to say, players are given specific sequences of notes to play, usually written in a box, but may play them as often, as fast or as slow as they wish, until the music moves on.

There are many striking moments: the dramatic and somehow galvanising entry of the piano; the immensely long violin melodies, one evoking a Bach chorale; the sporadic bursts of manic percussion; and the convulsive conclusion, after one of those passages of ominous calm, an ending reminiscent in its impact of the third of Alban Berg’s Pieces for Orchestra.

Urbański goes for this music in a ‘no-holds-barred’ way, noticeably different from the composer’s own recordings. Lutosławski was inclined to emphasise the cerebral nature of the music, where Urbański is unashamedly physical. The result is compelling, especially given such excellent playing from the NDR Orchestra, alongside a recording which perfectly captures the very special sound of this music. This is an important disc, one which may give impetus to an overdue reassessment of this great twentieth century figure. Maybe you won’t hear it chanted in the football stands; but I agree with the conclusion reached in the booklet notes: “There is only one Lutosławski”.

Gwyn Parry-Jones



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