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Witold LUTOSŁAWSKI (1913-1994)
Vocal and Orchestral Works
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Edward Gardner
rec. 2010-12
CHANDOS CHSA5223 SACD [5 SACDs: 343:28]

This handsome five-disc box is a straight reissue of a series of discs recorded between July 2010 and July 2012. Each disc is presented in a card slipcase alongside its original booklet containing excellent notes by Adrian Thomas. The sound quality, from three different venues, is as fine as you would expect from Chandos. I reviewed the first disc at the end of 2010 and, later, the disc of vocal works. I nominated each one as my Disc of the Month, and would probably do so for the remaining three if I were reviewing them separately today.

Lutosławski’s Third is not a conventional symphony in any sense. In one extended movement, the first half seems to be an almost random selection of short, apparently unrelated musical events, often no more than gestures. Adrian Thomas succinctly describes the beginning of the second half as the “onset of the main symphonic argument”. The work is a compelling and satisfying one. Antony Wit, as part of the excellent Naxos Lutosławski series, and the composer himself with the Berlin Philharmonic on a Philips disc, both provide very fine performances. This one is just as distinguished, with orchestral playing that seems even more assured.

Writing about Chain 3 in my original review, I found Gardner’s performance and that of Wit to be of equal merit, making it impossible to choose between them, though with perhaps a slight leaning toward the Polish performance as the work draws to its close. That close is an astonishing piece of musical imagination that is quite stunningly executed here. Both performances can be equally recommended.

In the early Concerto for Orchestra it is the Polish ensemble under Wit that produces the clearer, more analytical textures, yet the sheer sound of the BBC Symphony Orchestra is so beautiful that one is seduced and convinced by it. In addition, Gardner and the BBC ensemble turn in climaxes of such enormous power that even the Polish players cannot
match them. Lutosławski’s own performance with the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra (EMI) is spectacular, though the recording is no longer up to the mark. Wit is also outstandingly fine, but Gardner now leads the pack.

The second disc opens with the Symphonic Variations, composed while Lutosławski was still a student. He teacher did not understand the work and apparently found it ugly. It is extraordinarily precocious for a 25-year-old. The opening theme on the flute could pass as a folk melody, and there are many passages later in the work that are almost Romantic in atmosphere. The composer’s acute ear for orchestral texture is very apparent, and the work is marvellously paced, right up to the brilliantly exuberant ending. One might be tempted to dismiss the Variations on a Theme of Paganini as a harmless bit of fun, then one reads that this version, for piano and orchestra, is the composer’s arrangement of an earlier work for piano-duet that he played frequently after the German invasion of Poland in 1939, an essential way of making a living that he shared with his regular duet partner, Andrzej Panufnik.

Nobody would expect a conventional virtuoso piano concerto from Lutosławski, but in the event what he produced for Krystian Zimerman was not far from it. Surprising echoes of earlier works in the genre are to be heard: of the composers suggested in Adrian Thomas’s booklet note I heard mainly Rachmaninov and, above all, Ravel. The solo instrument and orchestra are on a more equal footing than in that combative masterpiece, the Cello Concerto, but the solo part is extremely taxing and played here with huge skill and commitment by Louis Lortie, who is equally impressive in the Paganini Variations. The work’s four movements are clearly delineated but played without a break. The finale is a kind of chaconne in which the piano and the orchestra go their separate ways for much of the time, only to come together with a common purpose to bring the work to its typically brilliant and exuberant close. This concerto makes me wonder, and not for the first time, how many of those virtuosos who tour the world with apparently miniscule repertoires – Beethoven, Prokofiev, Rachmaninov – would really rather be presenting works such as this before the public.

The Fourth Symphony, too, plays without a break, and from the ravishing, though rather sombre opening, though to the surprise ending, the listener is captivated by a series of exciting episodes. In many respects this work represents the epitome of Lutosławski’s art. If you don’t enjoy the Fourth Symphony there’s probably not much point in looking any further.

The early Mała Suita (Little Suite) was composed to conform to the recommendations of the state for music that would satisfy “the people”. Using folk themes, Lutosławski created a highly imaginative little score characterised by vivid and refined orchestral colours and another knockabout ending.

The Cello Concerto is one of Lutosławski’s most familiar works, and stands among the most important contributions to the form. For much of the work, the solo instrument is pitted in mortal combat with the orchestra. The struggle leads to something not far short of resolution: the solo instrument is not yet beaten, we might say. The work was composed for Rostropovich, whose performance under the composer’s direction is the benchmark by which subsequent performances will always be set. Paul Watkins cannot quite match Rostropovich’s extraordinary intensity and wildness, especially in the finale, but taken on its own terms this is a very fine performance and a satisfying way of discovering the work. Add to that the BBC Symphony Orchestra on top form, and a recording that lets us hear more of Lutosławski’s miraculous scoring than ever, and you have a highly desirable product. Listeners wanting to explore Lutosławski’s output must not miss the dedicatee’s white-hot performance, however.

Paul Watkins is just as impressive in Grave, a short work originally composed for cello and piano and later arranged for cello and strings by the composer himself. The work is based on a series of notes from Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande and its title hardly reflects the multi-faceted nature of the music, typical of the composer yet striking in such a short work.

In this box of extraordinary music, no work is more extraordinary than the Second Symphony. Adrian Thomas draws attention to Lutosławki’s habit of beginning a work with a long passage of music that whets the listener’s appetite then draws us into further passages that lead to some kind of conclusion, often by way of violent, explosive means. This is certainly the case with the Second Symphony whose first movement, entitled “Hesitant”, is a series of short, apparently unrelated episodes separated by periods of silence, each one allotted to a different instrumental group. There is no sense of development, and little idea of where the composer is taking us. The double basses enter at about the half-way point to announce the second of the symphony’s two movements, which is quite another thing. Amidst its awe-inspiring series of orchestral sounds and astounding mastery of aleatoric elements, there is greater forward movement. Yet the lasting impression of this movement is one of disruption, musical, certainly, but also of thought, of order, of established ways of being. It is interesting to note that the work was not complete in time for its scheduled first performance. On that occasion, Lutosławski himself conducted only the second movement, indicating that that was the order in which the work was composed. It’s almost as if he knew where he wanted to take us but hadn’t, for the moment, decided on how to get there. Antony Wit’s performance is, as so often, a very fine one, but this performance from the BBC Symphony Orchestra is stunning in its virtuosity and insight into a very remarkable work.

The First Symphony is the earliest purely orchestral music in this collection, and is a real eye-opener. The crashing discord with which it opens leads directly into a first movement whose driving energy is rivalled only by the finale. Lutosławski evidently saw this work as a cheerful one, but I agree with Adrian Thomas that this is not really how it comes over to the listener, despite the dynamism of much of the work. There is something frenetic about the outer movements, and the long slow movement certainly has a touch of melancholy about it. This is early Lutosławski, and there are moments where tonality is not far away. A passage of bewitching orchestral imagination toward the end of the third movement Scherzo shows that what Lutosławski was capable of even at the outset of his career.

Another early work is Dance Preludes, a set of five pieces first composed for clarinet and piano. There is a fair amount of contrast from one piece to another, but they are bound together by the debt they owe to the composer’s national music and to his way of using it to create something highly personal yet acceptable to the authorities. They are not particularly challenging technically – I once accompanied a student clarinettist in a performance of these engaging pieces – but Michael Collins dispatches them with much aplomb and sensitivity.

Chain 2, on the other hand, is highly challenging for the solo violinist, but Tasmin Little is not found wanting. She is as impressive in the bravura passages of the work’s four movements as she is in the wraithlike passage that closes the first. Chain 2 was written in response to the talents of Anne-Sophie Mutter, and the composer’s admiration for her playing was also the impetus behind his orchestration of Partita, originally composed for violin and piano in 1984 and reworked in its orchestral version in 1988. There are five short movements, of which two allow a certain amount of freedom to the performers. The piano is retained in these two movements, but the others feature the composer’s typically colourful orchestral palette. Like Chain 2, the work, uncannily baroque in places, is a virtuoso vehicle for the soloist, and Tasmin Little shines once again.

The earliest work in this whole collection is the Lacrimosa from 1937, originally part of an unfinished Requiem setting, and Lutosławski’s only sacred piece. For solo soprano and orchestra, it sounds nothing like the mature composer. It’s a gorgeous piece, and Lucy Crowe negotiates the high-lying phrases with radiant ease.

Silesian Triptych is, in effect, a set of three folk songs subjected to highly elaborate treatment and given an orchestral accompaniment. It was with works such as this that Lutosławski weathered the storm of political interference, creating something fresh, beautiful and moving whilst respecting the authorities’ demands that music be easily and broadly accessible. The three Silesian folk songs deal with different aspects of love. The first and last are last are lively, whereas the middle one is a gentle lament that closes with a tender, wordless passage. The work must be a dream to sing. Lucy Crowe is magnificent, and she is just as much at home in the touching miniature “Sleep, sleep”, from Four Children’s Songs of 1954.

By 1965, when Lutosławski composed Paroles Tissées for Peter Pears, Polish artists had access to greater freedom of expression. The sudden, violent turn towards experimentation that resulted can be perplexing. Jean-Francois Chabrun (1920-1997) was active politically and socially throughout his life, but it would be difficult to argue that the text that Lutosławski chose to call Paroles Tissées (“Woven Words”) is easily accessible to “the broad mass of the people”. The oppressive, subject matter is more obscured than expressed by repeated phrases and disjointed, apparently unrelated images. The vocal line is very varied, much of it close to recitative in style, with a distinct move away from the extended melodic writing to be heard in the earlier works. The accompaniment, for strings, harp, piano and percussion, features passages of controlled improvisation that emphasise, rather than limit, the composer’s remarkably fecund aural imagination. Nonetheless, of all the works in this collection this is the one where I least understand what the composer is driving at. The sheer beauty of much of the work does not adequately compensate this.

Les Espaces du Sommeil was composed for Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, and recorded by him on Philips with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by the composer. In this work the text, by Robert Desnos, though impenetrable in its own way, seems to me totally at one with the music. The nocturnal sounds Lutosławski conjures up from the orchestra, often with minimal means, are ravishing. There is no word painting as such – the cockerel features, for example, as he also does in Paroles Tissées, but you won’t hear him crowing in the orchestra. The composer’s way with the word “sommeil” (“sleep”) as the work nears its close, however, is wonderfully imaginative and, at the last, deeply affecting, both in the long slow vocalise and in the soft, caressing orchestral textures that support it.

Toby Spence is the soloist in Paroles Tissées, and Christopher Purves in Les Espaces du Sommeil. Both works are monstrously difficult for the singer, and each one acquits himself remarkably well. Toby Spence has the requisite power, and a striking baritone range when necessary, and his performance of a work perhaps even more challenging than the other strikes me as totally successful. Christopher Purves gives an eloquent and touching reading of what is surely a masterpiece. Only direct comparison with Fischer-Dieskau reveals a little more fantasy and marginally wider range of vocal colour in the older singer’s reading. The composer, too, whips up a rather more frenzied climax than we get here.

Lucy Crowe returns for the final work on the disc, Chantefleurs et Chantefables. Desnos is once again the poet in these nine short songs dealing with flowers and animals. The words, sophisticated though they be, might be thought of as appealing to children, and I’d like to think that the music would too. It’s certainly highly colourful, with Lutosławski’s total mastery of the symphony orchestra once again in evidence. An alligator and a tortoise feature, both of which leave the composer plenty of scope for characterisation. But the flower poems stimulate his imagination too, and the final song is an astonishing aural evocation of no fewer than three hundred million butterflies. The words of this and the other works on the disc, along with an English translation, appear in the booklet.

No praise is too high for the contribution of the BBC Symphony Orchestra on this disc and throughout the collection. This is orchestral playing of unsurpassed virtuosity. The players seem totally convinced by the music, and much of the credit for that must go to Edward Gardner. Collectors may well have one or more of these discs already, as well as other performances of many of the works. A bit of arithmetic might be necessary to decide just how to do it cost-wise, but I encourage Lutosławski admirers very strongly to ensure that all five of these discs find a place in their collections.

William Hedley

CD1: Orchestral Works 1
Symphony No. 3 (1983) [30:50]
Chain 3 (1986) [10:53]
Concerto for Orchestra (1954) [27:51]
rec. 2010, Assembly Hall, Walthamstow, UK
Originally released as CHSA5082 - review

CD2: Orchestral Works II
Symphonic Variations (1938) [9:29]
Variations on a Theme of Paganini (1941, 1978) [8:44]
Piano Concerto (1988) [23:20]
Symphony No. 4 (1992) [22:24]
Louis Lortie (piano)
rec. 2011, Assembly Hall, Walthamstow, UK
Originally released as CHSA5098 - reviews

CD3: Orchestral Works III
Mała Suita (1950) [10:13]
Cello Concerto (1970) [23:53]
Grave (1982/83) [5:36]
Symphony No. 2 (1967) [29:51]
Paul Watkins (cello)
rec. 2011, Colosseum, Watford, UK
Originally released as CHSA5106 - reviews

Orchestral Works IV
Symphony No. 1 (1947) [24:36]
Partita (1988) [16:45]
Chain 2 (1985) [19:18]
Dance Preludes (1955) [9:49]
Tasmin Little (violin)
Michael Collins (clarinet)
rec. 2012, Colosseum, Watford, UK
Originally issued as CHSA5108 - review

CD5: Vocal Works
Silesian Triptych (1951) [9:28]
Lacrimosa (1937) [4:07]
Paroles Tissées (1965) [16:22]
Four Children’s Songs: No. 3, Sleep, sleep (1954 [2:04]
Les Espaces du sommeil (1975) [15 :11]
Chantefleurs et Chantefables (1990) [19:48]
Lucy Crowe (soprano)
Toby Spence (tenor)
Christopher Purves (baritone)
rec. 2011, BBC Studio 1, Maida Vale, London
Originally released as CHAN10688 - reviews


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