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Witold LUTOSŁAWSKI (1913-1994)
Symphony No. 3 (1983) [32:56]
Symphony No. 2 (1967) [28:27]
Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra/Hannu Lintu
rec. 2018, Helsinki Music Centre
ONDINE ODE1332-5 SACD [61:40]

Lutosławski’s symphonies seem to have become mainstream repertoire, at least as far as recordings are concerned. They certainly deserve to. In additions to recordings of the first three under the composer himself – and he was no mean conductor of his own music – there have been several others, including a luxuriously produced series from Poland and others by Esa-Pekka Salonen and Edward Gardner. Now here we have Hannu Lintu’s second disc of the symphonies, completing the cycle which he began with the first and fourth (review). On the disc the third symphony precedes the second, but I shall consider them in their chronological order.

In the second symphony Lutosławski deploys his technique of aleatory counterpoint on a large scale. This idiom was suggested to him by hearing a radio broadcast of John Cage’s Concert for piano and orchestra (not Cage’s piano concerto, as the booklet states). In this work the players construct their parts from materials which Cage provided, and there is considerable freedom for the performers in how to combine them. Lutosławski took from this only the idea of writing lines which need not be exactly synchronised, but the conductor indicates when to start or stop any particular passage. He also used traditionally synchronised passages as well. He first used this technique in Jeux Vénitiens, which is on Lintu’s other disc, and then in this symphony. It is in two movements, a structure which he increasingly came to favour. The first is marked Hésitant, and in it we hear sketches and fragments which arouse a tension which is dispelled in the second movement, Direct. I used to think this more an experimental than a successful work but Lintu’s performance here really raised my opinion of it almost to the level of the last two symphonies.

The third symphony is generally considered Lutosławski’s masterpiece (though I think the fourth is as fine). Here he is supremely in control of his technique. Although the work plays continuously, in effect there is a similar underlying two-part structure as in the previous symphony. The music moves forward in a series of waves, within which there is a series of questions and answers between different orchestral groupings. There is a motto, of four loud repeated notes, which helps to hold the work together. This description may be rather dry but the work itself is thrilling. It is also not hard to follow. It was an immediate success and has been played all over the place.

Lintu’s performances are superb. There is a good deal of fast and intricate writing for the woodwind and strings and this is realized with confidence and a verve which goes beyond previous performances I have heard. The brass can menace and roar as required and the tuned percussion adds vivid colour. This is a SACD but I was listening in ordinary two-channel stereo, on which the balance sounded fine and the composer’s glittering textures came over well. The booklet is helpful, apart from that one slip about the Cage work, and altogether this is a quality production.

As far as competition is concerned, the composer’s own performances, though decent, have been excelled by subsequent conductors. For some time Salonen’s integral set was the one to go for, but this is now only available as a download. Edward Gardner’s versions have been well received, but on the companion disc Richard Hanlon thought him outclassed by Lintu. I hope he gives us more Lutoslawski. Strongly recommended.

Stephen Barber

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