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Witold LUTOSŁAWSKI (1913-1994)
Symphony No. 1 (1947) [24:38]
Jeux Vénitiens (1961) [12:07]
Symphony No. 4 (1992) [20:36]
Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra/Hannu Lintu
rec 2017/18, Helsinki Music Centre, Finland
Reviewed in Stereo and Surround
ONDINE ODE1320-5 SACD [57:21]

I struggle to think of composers contemporary with Lutosławski whose complete symphonic cycles have been recorded so often, and after hearing this disc one can only hope that Hannu Lintu intends to complete the job and lay down the Pole’s third and fourth symphonies too. Ondine have released a number of excellent discs featuring the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra under this fastidious and enterprising conductor which stray outside of what might be considered his Finnish-music comfort zone. Most impressive of all are his recordings of those late-twentieth century European masters who, like Lutosławski tended to reject the dogma and ‘isms’ that emerged from places like Darmstadt and Donaueschingen after World War Two. There are superb discs of Ligeti and Berio, as well as a fine performance of Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Symphonie and, as on the present disc, it’s Lintu’s ear for detail that really stands out, detail that emerges less clinically and perhaps more holistically than in many competing recordings of this repertoire. The Pole’s music is rich in both surface and underlying incident, and with this in mind, supported by lush playing from the Finns and an outstanding recording (in both two- and multi-channel formats) I have to suggest that Lintu goes straight to the top of the pile in all three works here, eclipsing even the excellent Chandos recordings of the symphonies by Edward Gardner and the BBC SO.

These three pieces each illustrate different phases of Lutosławski’s career: the first symphony was started in 1941 while the composer was barely earning a crust as a café-pianist in a duo with his pal Andrzej Panufnik. He tinkered with the work for the next six years before completing it during a formative period that would conclude with the mighty Concerto for Orchestra. Jeux Vénitiens emerged as a direct consequence of the composer’s exposure to Cage’s ‘Concert for piano and orchestra’ in 1961, which he heard by chance via a radio broadcast (the notes, which are otherwise excellent refer to Cage’s ‘Piano Concerto’ – in fact the American wrote a concerto for prepared piano in 1951 which is a completely different piece; the title of the ‘Concert’ was very precisely chosen by Cage) It is the first of Lutosławski’s works to employ what became known as ‘controlled aleatorism’, a technique handing certain interpretative freedoms to the performers of the music that would characterise his style over the next two decades. He never completely rejected it and it features, albeit more fleetingly, in the orchestral music of his late period, including his fourth and final symphony of 1992. Am I alone in considering this his masterpiece? I find it very difficult to think of any composer’s (of any era) ‘swansong’ which sums up their life’s work so elegantly and concisely. But more of that anon.

The disc begins with a colourful and driven account of the first symphony. From the jarring dissonance with which it opens and the motoric strings which follow, Lintu’s pulsating energy and the warm yet forensic recording immediately demand one’s attention. I have always found this work somewhat diffuse, a reflection perhaps of the extended period between its gestation and completion, as well as the intervening privations to which the composer must have been exposed in Warsaw during the war. While the composer’s own 1970s account for Polish EMI (review) was convincingly shaped, the recording is a bit ‘generalised’. Lintu’s account has real thrust and a palpably clear sense of direction, and the superb detail – tuned percussion gleams deliciously for example – does not seem like an end in itself but contributes to the ‘flow’ of the reading. Similarly, past recordings have often amplified an occasional astringency in the writing – I find even Gardner’s largely lustrous Chandos account sometimes guilty of this charge – whereas Lintu’s conception of the slow movement epitomises a warmth in the music that’s often conspicuous by its absence. The crescendos here are spectacular without being unnecessarily cinematic, while textures that can seem hidden (for example the celesta throughout the movement, or the piano from 7:29) are projected with transcendent clarity. The final two movements are faster and more bracing, and Lintu does not hold back in the motoric episodes which drive both panels. The Finnish woodwind principals sound wonderful; and the way the colliding brass choirs towards the end of the finale anticipate the Concerto for Orchestra has never seemed more apparent.

My first encounter with ‘controlled aleatorism’ was on an old Hungaroton LP of Lutosławski’s Cello Concerto in the mid-1970s (with Miklós Perényi as soloist –I’ve never seen it on CD) – I found the music so fascinating that I spent many evenings over the following weeks at the Henry Watson music library in Manchester trying to make sense of some of the composer’s orchestral scores – I remember being bewildered by their appearance and layout! By now, of course, the language of these pieces has become something of a familiar compositional lingua franca, but nearly six decades on from its premiere a work like Jeux Vénitiens can still startle, especially when a performance combines its essential edginess with sheer beauty of sound. That seems to be Lintu’s goal in this sumptuous reading. The aleatoric content of the outer sections quite belies Lutosławski’s clarity of thought. The tiny, alternating episodes of frenetic movement and disembodied stasis are drawn out seamlessly while the recording boldly illuminates the composer’s colourful writing. The two inner sections are completely notated and while the juxtapositions with the aleatoric content can sometimes seem jarring, that is certainly not the case in this performance. The complicated but not unalluring flute solo in the third section is superbly delivered by the FRSO principal; this is probably the expressive heart of the work and the harp-led accompaniment positively glows. The layered finale only translates into dense, forbidding material towards the conclusion of the piece before the percussion leads to its dissolution. The competing solo brass parts in this movement are thrillingly captured by the Ondine engineers, while cymbals, tam-tams and drums test the mettle of one’s speakers. Needless to say, this is especially true in the Surround option. The detail that emerges seems to be a hallmark of Lintu’s ‘style’ – it’s a feature of his recording of another notable 60’s ‘experiment’. Berio’s Sinfonia.

As I have already intimated, the fourth symphony is my favourite Lutosławski work, and one of my favourite pieces of music of any type. Lintu’s account is certainly the finest I have yet heard, eclipsing even Alexander Liebreich’s fine Accentus account from a couple of years ago (review). Lintu’s taut and considered conception of the work unfolds with singular clarity from first note to last. The bloom in the recorded sound, in both stereo and surround, is attractive and natural. The world-weary tread that characterises its opening is as profoundly moving as the desolate clarinet solo which emerges from it. This opening never fails to affect me, but what truly convinces throughout this account are the ways in which Lintu teases out (consciously or otherwise) the myriad allusions to Lutosławski’s entire oeuvre. I have always seen the fourth symphony as a mighty synthesis of (and homage to) all the different styles he adopted in his career – indeed it almost literally revisits many of his earlier masterpieces, almost a pained farewell perhaps, quite literally a ‘nostalgia’.

The very opening of the work is surely a softer, somehow tragic reference to the repeated Ds at the beginning of the Cello Concerto; later I detect a reminiscence of the First Symphony at around the 8:15 mark and of the Concerto for Orchestra in the textures and figures around 9:50. Soon afterwards the flute material seems to hark back to Jeux Vénitiens, just as the clarinet a minute later recalls the ‘Dance Preludes’. At around the twelve minute mark a rising pattern occurs that evokes the conclusion of the third symphony – I could go on. Despite the rapidly episodic nature of this symphony, these fleeting references to Lutosławski’s past seem to constitute the glue the enables the structure to cohere, and it’s Lintu who best projects this essence most convincingly. Lintu lingers over the penultimate section of the work – an extraordinary passage for three solo violins which is particularly eerie here. As for the decisive, defiant, curt epilogue, a two-fingered signing off if ever –Lintu doesn’t hold back. After completing the symphony Lutosławski would soon be diagnosed with the aggressive cancer that would kill him. Perhaps old age is not for the faint-hearted. Lintu and his Finnish orchestra wrest every drop of beauty and defiance from this magnificent work. It completes an unmissable album.

Richard Hanlon



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