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Lutoslawski: Symphony No. 2; Grave; Cello Concerto; Mala Suite / Gardner, Watkins, BBC Symphony

Lutoslawski / Watkins / Bbc Sym Orch / Gardner
Release Date: 11/13/2012 
Label:  Chandos   Catalog #: 5106   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Witold Lutoslawski
Performer:  Paul Watkins
Conductor:  Edward Gardner
Orchestra/Ensemble:  BBC Symphony Orchestra
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

"If you fancy treating your mind to some seriously stimulating sounds this is a splendid journey on which to embark." - Fanfare

LUTOSLAWSKI Symphony No. 2. Mala Suita. Cello Concerto 1. Grave 1 1 Paul Watkins (vc); Edward Gardner, cond; BBC SO CHANDOS 5106 (SACD: 70:04)

The fourth volume in Read more Chandos’s Lutoslawski series contains one accepted masterpiece, a fascinating transitional work, one early work, and one arrangement by the composer of a short chamber piece. As in earlier issues in this series, the program illuminates the contrast between different periods of Lutoslawski’s output, but also certain points of continuity.

The Little Suite ( Mala Suita ) of 1950 predates his popular Concerto for Orchestra by four years and is full of subtle touches of orchestration that prefigure that early masterpiece. Each of its four movements uses Polish folk tunes (following the proscribed Communist government line), but Lutoslawski’s skill and light touch in the handling of this fairly simple thematic material gives the work freshness and integrity. Gardner and his BBC forces play it with effortless virtuosity and evident enjoyment.

By the time of his Second Symphony (1965-67), the composer’s harmonic thinking had become more complex and he had embraced modernism in the form of a limited aleatory technique, which he referred to as “controlled chance”: passages in which the musicians are given thematic phrases to repeat, independent of their neighbors, for a specifically indicated duration. These free sections alternate with regular metered sections. Many of Lutoslawski’s compositions from the 1960s onward use this aleatory technique to some degree but it is especially notable in this symphony, his first large-scale work to feature it. The symphony is also the first of several pieces where the main thrust of the musical argument occurs in the latter half—literally, as there are two movements ( Hésitant and Direct ). Nevertheless, the work is by no means a complete break from the past. It conceivably might have been titled Concerto for Orchestra No. 2: It spotlights groupings of solo instruments such as oboes, bassoons, and English horn in the first movement and string sections in the second, and is as much an orchestral showpiece as the earlier concerto. Perhaps because of the aleatory sections, early parts of the symphony seem fragmentary—even random—and it lacks the lyrical impulse that the composer brought into the mix for his highly regarded Third Symphony, but ultimately it all comes together in the second movement with some impressive climactic passages.

Obviously no two performances of the Second Symphony sound exactly the same. In his recording from 1977 with the Polish Radio National Symphony Orchestra, the composer finds mystery in the sectional first movement and builds the tension with compelling intensity in the second. His Polish musicians play with commitment but are somewhat distantly recorded. (Full disclosure: I used a 40-year-old LP of this performance for comparison. It may sound clearer on CD.) Salonen’s 1994 Los Angeles recording frames the instruments in a closer perspective and is brisker in its timing. More in the concerto for orchestra mold, it is brilliantly played but rather disengaged. Gardner gets the best of both worlds: involvement and understanding from his orchestra and warm, clear, revealing sound. I do not have Antoni Wit’s Naxos recording at hand but James H. North dismissed it in these pages, saying the “too-smooth performance” glossed over many details.

Lutoslawski’s Cello Concerto (1970) is now regarded as a masterpiece of its genre and has been performed and recorded often. When the reiterated Ds of the cello at the opening are suddenly challenged by the orchestral trumpets, it is clear this will be an essay of confrontation between opposing forces. With his strength of attack and depth of tone, the dedicatee, Mstislav Rostropovich, could take on a full orchestra with aplomb, which he did in his iconic 1974 recording with the Paris Orchestra conducted by the composer. Although Lutoslawski played down the idea, it was thought at the time that the concerto illustrated Rostropovich’s personal confrontations with the Soviet regime. Since then, other cellists have found their own emotional resonances in the music, notably Pieter Wispelwey, whose recording was highly praised by Bernard Jacobson in Fanfare 21:1. Jacobson described the Dutch cellist’s approach as instinctive and mercurial in “a work that depends more than most on the conviction of its performers.” Paul Watkins, without being the larger-than-life protagonist Rostropovich was, holds his own in this new performance. He is suitably assertive but also brings an elegant detachment to his role, which works very effectively: It reinvents the protagonist as an Everyman rather than a Superman. As well, Watkins is a superb musician technically, and again Gardner and the BBC Symphony Orchestra (always comfortable in contemporary music) are first-class.

Finally, the disc includes a short work from 1981 entitled Grave , a series of variations or “metamorphoses” on a theme from the opening of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande. Originally for cello and piano, the accompaniment was transcribed by the composer for string orchestra in 1982. With several vigorous rhythmic episodes it is a good deal livelier than the opera from which it derives, and displays Lutoslawski’s finely tuned ear for texture and color. Watkins and Gardner give a pointed, detailed performance, outshining the robust one by Rafael Kwiatkowski in Wit’s Naxos recording where the cellist is recorded too closely for my taste.

In summary, this disc is a further triumph in a series that looks like it’s becoming the finest overview yet of the work of one of the late 20th-century’s most significant composers. I should add that this is a Super Audio CD, but I have only heard it in regular stereo.

FANFARE: Phillip Scott


This fourth volume of Edward Gardner’s superb series of Witold Lutoslawski, and the third volume of his orchestral music echoes volume 2 almost exactly (see review), with a concerto and a symphony and shorter pieces to open and separate the larger masterpieces. To complete the set so far you can read about the first orchestral volume here, and the excellent disc with vocal works here.

This programme begins with the superb Mala Suite or Little Suite, which manages to integrate folk music and original sonorities into a work which was created under the rules of Communist directives on acceptable style and content. There are shades of Prokofiev and Stravinsky, but also a clear sense of the kind of Polish lyrical heartland which you can also hear in Panufnik’s earlier work, some of the themes also foreshadowing works such as the Concerto for Orchestra.

Chandos’s house cello soloist of the day Paul Watkins is excellent in the Cello Concerto, the drama of the extended opening solo and its interruption with imperious and irritable trumpets sounding more than ever like the prologue to an opera without words. The spatial subtleties in the goings on amongst the sections of the orchestra make the SACD element in this recording a genuinely fascinating experience, the silence sculpted with moments of darting light and colour. The transparency of Lutoslawski’s orchestration might have given this work a feeling of fragility and transience, but the opposite is true. The Cello Concerto exerts a powerful grip on the imagination, and with a palpable feeling of anticipation and the composer’s highly selective dosage of release and reward this is one of those pieces which can change your entire view about what music can do. Such a fertile performance and recording as this makes for compelling and at times truly shocking listening.

After this unnerving experience we are brought back only partially to the style of Lutoslawski’s earlier work in the version of Grave for cello with string orchestra. This is later piece from 1981/82, but is relatively conservative in its rhythms and techniques, a few momentary shooting glissandi being one of the familiar fingerprints. The title would seem to suggest something more lugubrious than the lively work which in fact unfolds.

The Symphony No. 2 was written some years after the Concerto for Orchestra, and is closer to the Livre pour orchestre in its exploration of timbres and atmospheres. The two movements are titled Hésitant and Direct, the former combining and dividing various textures and sonorities, the latter growing more integrated and organic shapes, glued differently through the significantly greater use of strings and with waves of pulsing and dramatic interjection. This second movement was the first to be completed, and its magnificent sonic landscapes are the place to try if you are seeking some convincing fragments. The development of the first four minutes or so is one of Lutoslawski’s truly glorious passages, and if your jaw refuses to drop then you’d better get a check-up for tetanus.

Comparisons with alternative recordings have to be made, and I invariably finding myself gravitating towards my former reference of Antoni Wit on the Naxos label. His Little Suite and the Symphony No. 2 both appear on Naxos 8.553169 and both in very good performances from the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra. The Chandos disc manages to deliver more instrumental detail while at the same time heightening the atmospheres in the symphony, the Polish trumpet players also hamming things up distractingly here and there on the Naxos disc. I would put Gardner’s performance about level pegging with that of Jacek Kaspszyk on the excellent Opera Omnia series (see review), the SACD recording perhaps tipping the balance in Gardner’s favour, but not by much.

The Cello Concerto has quite a few competitors, the Naxos version on 8.553625 again having plenty going for it, but in no way as scary as Gardner’s recording, the more generalised orchestral sound putting a kind of aural safety net between us and Lutoslawski’s potent score. Antoni Wit also recorded this piece for the Polish DUX label, and this Warsaw Philharmonic performance/recording is a bit more vibrant and passionate. With my ideas about the Cello Concerto completely transfixed by Paul Watkins and the BBC Symphony Orchestra however, I feel pretty secure in being able to put forward this Chandos version against and above all others.

Collectors of this series will already have this volume firmly in their sights, and no-one need hesitate in snapping it up. Paul Watkins fans familiar with his more mainstream repertoire might hesitate, but that would be a shame. If you fancy treating your mind to some seriously stimulating sounds this is a splendid journey on which to embark.

– Dominy Clements, MusicWeb International
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Works on This Recording

Symphony no 2 by Witold Lutoslawski
Conductor:  Edward Gardner
Orchestra/Ensemble:  BBC Symphony Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1966-1967; Poland 
Little Suite by Witold Lutoslawski
Conductor:  Edward Gardner
Orchestra/Ensemble:  BBC Symphony Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1951; Poland 
Notes: Polish title: Mala suita 
Grave by Witold Lutoslawski
Performer:  Paul Watkins (Cello)
Conductor:  Edward Gardner
Orchestra/Ensemble:  BBC Symphony Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1981; Poland 
Notes: Subtitled: Metamorphoses for Cello and String Orchestra 
Cello Concerto by Witold Lutoslawski
Performer:  Paul Watkins (Cello)
Conductor:  Edward Gardner
Orchestra/Ensemble:  BBC Symphony Orchestra
Period: Modern 
Written: 1966-1970 

Customer Reviews

Average Customer Review:  1 Customer Review )
 Noisy and chaotic May 19, 2013 By G K Barranger (Covington, LA) See All My Reviews "Not recommended except for the ash-can quality of the music. But if that's what turns you on, have at it. Not recommended for playback in an enclosed space like an automobile." Report Abuse
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