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Witold LUTOSŁAWSKI (1913-1994)
Symphonic Variations for Orchestra (Wariacje symfoniczne na orkiestre) (1938) [9:50]
Alexandre TANSMAN (1897-1986)
Polish Rhapsody (Rapsodia polska) (1940) [10:52]
Karol RATHAUS (1895-1954)
Music for Strings (Muzyka na smyczki) (1941) [10:41]
Andrzej PANUFNIK (1914-1991)
Tragic Overture (Uwertura tragiczna) (1942) [8:02]
Sinfonia Varsovia/Jerzy Maksymiuk (Rathaus, Tansman), Renato Rivolta (Lutosławski, Panufnik)
rec. 2014, Witold Lutosławski Polish Radio Concert Studio, Warsaw
WARNER CLASSICS 9029 591751 [39:45]

This is a fascinating selection of orchestral pieces composed during the Second World War, or just before its onset, hence the title 39’45 (and presumably the playing time). This was a period when Poland, a country that witnessed genocide and extermination, was under Nazi occupation. This transformed Warsaw from a thriving centre of musical life to a place of destruction. Polish music was banned in concert halls, and the country’s cultural life was subjected to strict control and censorship. Native, dispossessed musicians congregated in Warsaw, and those of Jewish extraction were sent to the ghetto. Many were murdered. This didn’t deter composers from expressing their artistic freedom and ethical resistance. Their music was now performed clandestinely. Some works never even reached that stage. Listening to this compelling music, played by the Sinfonia Varsovia, one confronts the diverse ways different composers met the challenges of this dreadful and dark period in Poland’s history. This is the first volume of a planned series, by this orchestra, of music from the time of the occupation.

Lutosławski’s Symphonic Variations was written a year before the outbreak of war and premiered on Polish Radio in April 1939 under the baton of Grzegorz Fitelberg. The composer was studying at the Warsaw Conservatory at the time and his composition teacher, by all accounts, dismissed the work as incomprehensible and ugly. Maybe it was considered compositionally advanced at the time, but today it sounds fairly tame. The opening theme on the flute and violins is particularly alluring, evoking a haven of peace, but this doesn’t last long. The music soon becomes energetic and edgy. Lutosławski proves adept at orchestration, exploring colourful orchestral sonorities with imaginative flair. The influence of early Stravinsky is an enduring presence.

Alexandre Tansman pays homage to his homeland in his Polish Rhapsody. With quotes from the Polish anthem and the folksong Umarł Maciek, his rebellious, mocking defiance is an attempt to overcome oppression. Brilliantly scored, its mocking and almost brash character is vitally captured in this dazzling performance, under the inspirational baton of Jerzy Maksymiuk.

Although he left Poland at an early age, Karol Rathaus strongly acknowledged his Polish roots throughout his life. The Music for Strings of 1941 is a lushly upholstered work. Sombre and angst-ridden in parts it bears the hallmarks of a lament or elegy. The orchestra’s rich, warm strings luxuriate in the music's solemn, profound lyricism.

Nothing could provide a more startling contrast to the Rathaus work than the bombastic and highly-charged Tragic Overture by Panufnik. It was penned in 1942 when the inevitability of Poland’s military defeat at the hands of the Nazis became apparent. It was premiered on 19 March 1944. It makes for an arresting listen. Forceful rhythms and enveloping tensions all add to the starkness of the piece. The persistent drum salvos at the end bring the work to a coruscating and earth-shattering conclusion. Renato Rivolta engineers a stunning dramatic landscape of aural potency.

The performances have been recorded in impressive, state-of-the-art sound, in an acoustic sympathetic to the revealing of orchestral detail. I must commend Warner on their extensive annotations, with scholarly contributions from Prof. Michał Bristiger and Dr. Katarzyna Naliwajek-Mazurek. My only grumble is the short playing time for a full price release, despite the presumed connection to the title. This may deter some potential purchasers. The publicity spiel states that if you buy the download, you get the addition of Antoni Szałowski’s 8 minute Overture for Symphony Orchestra. I assume that this is to make up, to an extent, for the poor value, timewise.

Stephen Greenbank



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