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Witold LUTOSŁAWSKI (1913-1994)
Opera Omnia - Volume 4
Concerto for Orchestra (1954) [30:49]
Symphony No. 1 [27:21]
NFM Wroclaw Philharmonic Orchestra/Stanislaw Skrowaczewski
rec. May 2013, Witold Lutosławski Concert Hall, Wroclaw, Poland
CD ACCORD ACD196-2 [58:23]
Opera Omnia - Volume 5
Covering tracks and trailblazing
Symphony No. 3 (1981-3) [33:43]
Lacrimosa for soprano, mixed choir and orchestra (1937) [3:38]
Symphonic Variations (1936-8) [8:56]
Silesian Triptych for soprano and orchestra (1951) [8:50]
Little Suite (Mala Suite) (1950-1) [11:04]
Agata Zubel (soprano)
NFM Wroclaw Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir/Jacek Kaspszyk
rec. June 2013 (symphony), December 2013 (Lacrimosa, Silesian Triptych), September 2013 (variations), January 2012 (suite), Witold Lutosławski Concert Hall, Wroclaw
CD ACCORD ACD197-2 [66:54]

Over the last nine years the CD Accord label, with the support of the Polish Ministry of Culture, has been releasing a series of CDs which is intended to cover Lutosławski’s complete works, under the general title of Opera Omnia. So far six volumes have appeared, but the numbering is in neither a logical nor a chronological sequence. The first was given over to chamber music (review), the second to symphonies 2 and 4 (review) and the third to Preludes and a Fugue and the Double Concerto for oboe and harp (review). Here we have the next two.

Volume 4 begins with the Concerto for Orchestra. This dates from 1954 and was the composer’s breakthrough work. It must be one of the most performed Concertos for Orchestra since Bartόk, who was an inspiration for Lutosławski but not a model. There are three movements, though the third falls into several sections. The composer draws on folk songs but not in an obvious way and there are various reminiscences of Bartok. The work is melodic and attractive. Both the first and last movements feature driving rhythms which are very exciting.

The Symphony No 1 was the composer’s major work of the 1940s. Sketches for it apparently date back to before the war but it was not completed and performed until 1947, by which time Poland was under a Communist regime and the work was promptly condemned as ‘formalist,’ the catch-all term for any music which the authorities disapproved of. It is in fact a mainstream neo-classical work in four movements, rather in the idiom of Prokofiev. There is a bustling first movement, a grave adagio which sounds more like Berg at the beginning and end but has some Prokofievian grotesquerie on the oboe in the middle, a strange and rather compelling ghostly scherzo and a finale full of good ideas but which rather falls apart. It is an interesting rather than a completely satisfactory work but it deserves the occasional airing.

What is immediately striking and impressive about these two performances is the security and confidence of the orchestral playing. The players really know these works: scurrying string passages are securely together, as are high-lying soaring ones, the woodwind are really on top of their many complicated lines and the brass and percussion give the right degree of weight. Skrowaczewski, better remembered in the UK for his Bruckner, obtains good playing. These are live performances in a good concert hall acoustic and with the applause included. Yet, when I compared these with the composer’s own performances, recorded forty years ago by British engineers in Poland in decent analogue sound and reissued in a three disc bargain set (review ~ review), I was immediately struck by how much more pungent his performances were, how much more imaginative the playing, and his consistently faster speeds led to more exciting performances. Skrowaczewski’s performances are perfectly satisfactory in themselves but one might have hoped for something a little bolder on what is clearly intended as an archival series.

Volume 5 carries the title Covering tracks and trailblazing. By far the most important work on it is the Symphony No. 3, arguably the composer’s masterpiece and deservedly one of the most performed symphonies of the post-war years. It begins with a motto, of four fast repeated notes (the note E), which recurs at points during the score. Much of this is written using the aleatoric (chance) technique which Lutosławski developed. This is not a free-for-all, far from it, but a technique in which individual sections flow into one another without necessarily having a common rhythm. The conductor must choose and indicate when to move from one section to the next. The effect is that the music moves forward in a series of waves rather than being held together through a single consistent rhythm. Although the work plays continuously it can actually be divided into two movements, a structure the composer was fond of. Within these there is a series of questions and answers between different orchestral groups. None of this would matter if the work were not interesting and well-constructed. In fact it is absolutely gripping, and any worries about the construction or the aleatoric ideas disappear in the face of its cogent argument.

The rest of the disc is made up of shorter and quite minor works. The Lacrimosa is the sole survivor of a projected Requiem which the composer worked on as a student. Not surprisingly it is somewhat derivative, in this case of Szymanowski, in particular his Stabat Mater and Litany to the Virgin Mary. It is an attractive short number, difficult to programme except in the context of other choral works.

The Symphonic Variations is another early work, based on a theme by the composer which sounds like a folk tune but which he actually composed. There are then a number of variations – commentators can’t decide whether there are eight or twelve, and without a score I can’t decide. Be that as it may, the work is colourful, highly varied, and, though obviously having some echoes of other composers, is also individual and characteristic.

The remaining two works were dismissed by the composer as ‘Stalinist hackwork,’ composed along with other popular and lighter works to make money. They are better than that, though still minor. The Silesian Triptych sets three folk songs and the Little Suite is a set of four catchy numbers. Apparently the second movement was used as a television jingle. These are uncomplicated works for smaller ensembles in which the composer simplifies his style for a popular audience. This was something he was perfectly capable of – indeed, he wrote pop songs under a pseudonym for some years. I don’t expect we shall see these included in this Opera Omnia series.

All the works here are in the safe hands of Jacek Kaspszyk, whom I admire for his recordings of Szymanowski. Again, I note the security of the orchestral playing. Agata Zubel handles the two vocal items with confidence. These are all studio performances, in the same concert hall as the previous volume. There is a good deal of competition for the Symphony No. 3, notably the composer himself in a fine recording with the Berlin Philharmonic, and I have also admired Esa-Peka Salonen in this work. All these works in these two volumes have had several recordings, and all are included in the alternative Polish series on Naxos under Antoni Wit and presumably will be in the developing series by Edward Gardner on Chandos.

The packaging of both discs is luxurious, with a cardboard outer sleeve enclosing each jewel case, and a very full booklet with long discussions of the works and all the details you would wish. Texts are given in Polish and English, plus Latin for the Lacrimosa. The external design features the volume number prominently and the contents of the disc in tiny type, but I expect I am the only person who finds this a bit odd.

Those collecting the series will naturally want both volumes. For others, I would point them particularly to Volume 5, with a fine performance of Symphony No. 3 and interesting minor works.

Stephen Barber



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