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Karol SZYMANOWSKI (1882-1937)
Concert Overture in E major, Op. 12 (1904/05, 1910-13) [13:15]
Witold LUTOSŁAWSKI (1913-1994)
Concerto for Cello and Orchestra (1969/70) [24:27]
Symphony No. 4 (1988-92) [21:48]
Gautier Capuçon (cello)
Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra/Alexander Liebreich
rec. NOSPR Concert Hall, Katowice, Poland, 27-29 January and 28-30 June 2016

This disc continues a series of Szymanowski and Lutosławski works performed by the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra (NOSPR) under its artistic director and principal conductor since 2012, Alexander Liebreich. There are two earlier volumes, which I have not heard, the first containing Lutosławski’s Concerto for Orchestra and Szymanowski’s Three Fragments from Poems by Jan Kasprowicz, and the second, Lutosławski’s Livre pour orchestre and Szymanowski’s Symphony No. 2. They have not been reviewed here to my knowledge. If they are of the quality of this new volume, lovers of these works are in for a real treat.

We can dispense with the Szymanowski Concert Overture in short order. It is a work that was highly influenced by Richard Strauss’s famous tone poem, Don Juan—so much so that it sounds like second-rate Strauss with only hints of the renowned Polish composer to come. It seems too long for its material, but receives as good a performance here as others I have heard. The real attractions of this CD, however, are the two Lutosławski works, both masterpieces.

I had never fully appreciated Lutosławski’s Cello Concerto until I heard this new recording by Gautier Capuçon. The work always seemed like just a combat between cello and orchestra, especially the brass. The concerto was composed for Mstislav Rostropovich, who made the first recording with the composer conducting Orchestre de Paris on EMI/Warner. As with almost everything the cellist recorded, Rostropovich’s performance seems larger than life. He is recorded close to the microphones, but the orchestral part is not shortchanged either. It has often been considered the definitive account and still makes a powerful impression, even if the orchestral contribution now sounds rather crass and unsubtle with some dicey tuning in the brass. Later Heinrich Schiff recorded the concerto live with the composer and the Bavarian Radio Symphony for Philips. That is the version with which I became acquainted with the work. It is almost the exact opposite of Rostropovich’s, a subtle and analytical account recorded at some distance. Both may be thought of as authoritative, though neither approaches the sheer musicality of this new one with Capuçon and the Polish National Radio Symphony under Liebreich.

Capuçon takes a more lyrical approach to the work, and with his gorgeous tone his cello resonates superbly. The important brass interjections are not harsh, but are brilliant. The trombones, in particular, are sensational around the 9:00 mark. Another recording featuring the same orchestra, conducted by Antoni Wit with cellist Andrzej Bauer, as part of their Lutosławski series (Naxos), is not in the same class. With such a wealth of detail as can be heard in the Accentus recording, it simply is no contest. The balance for Capuçon/Liebreich is exceptional, and the recorded sound provides sufficient spaciousness. The timing of the account is slightly broader than the others, but this is due primarily to the pauses being more significant. My only complaint, and it is a very small one, is that the work has been given a single track whereas Rostropovich’s is multi-tracked. The concerto is nominally in four continuous movements, but acts as a single span like the Symphony No. 4’s construction.

Lutosławski’s Fourth Symphony is a late composition and one of the most frequently programmed of his works in the genre. If it does not evince the power of the Symphony No. 3, its more lyrical nature is hugely attractive. It consists of two movements, with the second subdivided into three parts and a coda. In most recordings the work is contained in a single track, as it is on this disc. The symphony was commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic and received its premiere recording under Esa-Pekka Salonen on Sony. That account has stood the test of time and may be considered a reference version. Since then there have been a number of recordings. Antoni Wit contributed his fine rendition on Naxos, but does not impress as much as Salonen’s in the beauty of its orchestral performance. Wit’s rawer approach to the work may appeal more to some listeners and his recording displays good detail in the brass. Edward Gardner with the BBC Symphony (Chandos) provides a more expansive treatment of the symphony with a timing of 22:25 and is given a swimmy recording with a rather long decay.

My current favorite recording of the Symphony No. 4 is the recent one by the NDR Symphony under Krzysztof Urbański (Alpha). His may not be as eloquent as Salonen’s, but is better played than Wit’s and he is given an absolutely outstanding recording. Urbański’s interpretation is taut and dramatic, and his timing is shorter (18:43) than the others. The percussion and brass are terrific, and the strings’ articulation something to behold. The recording’s vivid sound allows one to hear all the facets of the orchestral texture very well. How does the new account compare with this?

Liebreich is slightly more deliberate than Urbański, more like Salonen. Salonen’s timing (21:01) is close to Liebreich’s (21:48). Liebreich’s account is one of power and ardour with splendid playing in all departments. His approach is somewhat granitic, while Urbański’s is more dynamic. Both are valid and I wouldn’t want to be without either, or without Salonen for that matter. Liebreich brings much to the score and, as in the Cello Concerto, is given a superb recording. If I had to choose, I would still go for Urbański’s dynamism first, but others may prefer Liebreich’s way and I have great respect for his interpretation.

Accentus encases the CD in attractive cardboard covers with a very substantial booklet that includes perceptive notes (obviously translated from a foreign language), good photos, and a complete listing of the orchestra members. This disc is worth having for the Cello Concerto alone and, with such a fine account of the Fourth Symphony, is a must for anyone who cares about Lutosławski’s music. I personally would skip the Szymanowski Overture, but I may be in a minority. I look forward to future volumes in this most worthwhile series.

Leslie Wright



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