LUTOSLAWSKI Symphony No. 1. Partita1. Chain 22. Dance Preludes3 • 1,2Tasmin Little (vn); 3Michael Collins (cl); 1,3Elisabeth Burley (pn); Edward Gardner, cond; BBC SO • CHANDOSRead more 5108 (SACD: 71:02)
Symphonies Nos. 1-4. Fanfare for LA Philharmonic • Esa-Pekka Salonen, cond; Los Angeles PO • SONY 876544083 (2 CDs: 105: 56)
Witold Lutosawski’s centenary has led to the release of two new recordings of his Symphony No. 1. The Polish composer’s first orchestral work, it was written between 1941 and 1947. (The long gestation period was partly the result of the vicissitudes of war.) Neatly structured in a conventional four-movement form that he subsequently abandoned, it is colorfully orchestrated and shows extraordinary technical skill on the part of the young composer. Several passages, notably those involving harp and woodwinds, pre-echo the sound world of the Concerto for Orchestra that was to follow five years later. The thematic material is steeped in the contours and rhythms of Polish folk music, typical of LutosLawski’s early output, but the material is treated in a sophisticated, Bartókian manner rather than merely “arranged.” (This led to criticism of the symphony from the Socialist regime. Fortunately the work was not banned outright.) Some of the composer’s later fingerprints are present also: In the first movement, a sudden Fortissimo chord stops the musical progress in its tracks and signals a slight change of direction, reminiscent of the opening of the Third Symphony. While the First is less expressionist than its successors, it is not without moments of depth and could even be described as a “war symphony”; the nocturnal third movement evokes a world of shadowy secrecy that Lutoslawski must have known only too well.
The virtues of Gardner’s LutosLawski are familiar by now: This release is the fourth in his orchestral series. The BBC Symphony Orchestra plays this sometimes tricky music with great proficiency and understanding, and Gardner’s inspiring leadership, plus first class Chandos sound, enables us to hear every strand of the texture. Tasmin Little is a strong soloist in the Partita and Chain 2, two works from the 1980s written for Anne-Sophie Mutter. If either of these admittedly short compositions had been called a Violin Concerto they would be central to the repertory by now. They are packed with incident, color, and fascinating interplay—plus a new lyrical impetus that the composer was finding during this period. Mutter’s premiere 1988 recording with Lutoslawski on the podium is still very special—cleanly recorded and brilliantly performed with the star violinist at her least mannered. But Little is equally compelling and just as detailed in her responses. Collins gives a fluent, attractive performance of the early Dance Preludes: I had not realized that the premiere of the work’s orchestral version took place at Aldeburgh and was conducted by Britten. In five brief movements it again reveals the influence of Bartók and is one of the composer’s easiest pieces to love. Zbiginew Kaleta’s reading on Naxos (with Antoni Wit and the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra) is earthier, appropriately for this folkdance-based material, but again Chandos’s superior sound tips the scales.
Salonen and the Los Angeles Philharmonic recorded the First Symphony in December 2012: This part of the Sony set is brand new while the other symphonies are reissues, set down in 1994 (Second), 1985 (Third), and 1993 (Fourth), respectively. Salonen is a more analytical conductor than Gardner, so if you are interested in the nuts and bolts of this music he’s your man. The sound is very present on the new recording—full, bright, and brilliant—and the Los Angeles musicians outplay their London counterparts, which is no mean feat.
The most interesting of the older recordings is the earliest, that of Symphony No. 3. This was its premiere on disc, pre-dating the composer’s excellent version with the Berlin Philharmonic (now available again as part of Universal Classics 20th Century series: DG 478 4579). Salonen’s Third has dryish sound, but his performance teems with the freshness and excitement that comes with the discovery of a major new piece. The stakes are high and the orchestral soloists relish every moment, making this recording very special in a competitive field containing other fine performances from Gardner and Barenboim. It is a shame Sony did not consider a larger box set in order to include Salonen’s original couplings, among them the Piano Concerto with Paul Crossley and a beautifully articulated, burnished rendition of the orchestral song cycle Les espaces du sommeil with baritone John Shirley-Quirk. Still, the symphonies alone are not merely important compositions in their own right but represent a perfect overview of the stylistic growth and changes of emphasis that characterized Lutoslawski’s music over a period of half a century.