Notes and Editorial Reviews
Symphony No. 4. Piano Concerto
. Variations on a Theme of Paganini. Symphonic Variations
Edward Gardner, cond; Louis Lortie (pn); BBC SO
CHANDOS CHSA5098 (67:25)
This fascinating and immensely enjoyable disc covers a wide span of Lutos?awski’s compositional career, from the earliest surviving orchestral work to his last symphony, and from an early work for two pianos (albeit in a version orchestrated by the composer 40 years later) to his last concertante work. In
, which open the disc, conductor Edward Gardner takes half a minute longer than the composer in his own 1976 reading (EMI)—this shows up straight away in the opening flute solo. Gardner’s reading is a shade cooler than the composer’s, perhaps, but no less effective. The music is delightfully unselfconscious and this is caught perfectly by Gardner. The surprise is the degree of assuredness shown by the composer, in his 20s, in this music. His ear for color and instrumentation is strong and the work feels more consistent with his later music than does the substantially later
Concerto for Orchestra
. The influences of Szymanowski, Bartók, and Stravinsky may be clear and obvious but they are already being assimilated and so, when they show up at the start of the second movement, for example, they feel all of a piece.
In 1978, Lutos?awski orchestrated his two-piano
Variations on a Theme of Paganini
(1941) as a concertante work. Each variation is played twice, the piano and orchestra swapping over for the second time around, thereby generating a more substantial work (more of a
to perform it) as well as allowing the composer to show his orchestral skills. These are, nevertheless, never forced on the music, which retains its lightness and charm, particularly in Louis Lortie’s and Gardner’s reading.
The Piano Concerto, completed in 1988, is, like so many of Lutos?awski’s works, end-weighted, by which I mean that the later movements carry the greater part of the emotional content, intellectual weight, and, indeed, duration. So the composer starts, in the first movement, with themes he describes as “nonchalant, light, sometimes wayward,” though there is space for a broad, yearning cantilena. The second movement is a short Presto, one of whose functions, I suspect, is just not to be like the third movement, which starts with a lengthy peroration for solo piano (there are no cadenzas in this work). The fourth is structurally the most interesting. Lutos?awski partially decouples the soloist from the band. They don’t go their own ways entirely but, whereas the two parties had adopted a rather conversational style in the first three movements, now they tend to talk over each other in this set of variations. Lortie is highly responsive to the music and his touch is completely assured. This work is very much of the composer’s late period, if I may be allowed to invent that concept. As with the earlier Third Symphony, it uses an integrative musical language that is both melodic and often passionately lyrical, absorbing and being influenced by the styles of composers of previous generations; not in a knowing postmodernist way, or even in the inclusive, but seemingly random, way Mari Takano employs in the music I review elsewhere in this edition. Rather Lutos?awski achieves coherence and consistency—and innovation—in a way that shows both the composer’s line of succession and his links to his musical past.
Like many a Lutos?awski work, this CD is also end-weighted, with the symphony coming last. However, the Fourth Symphony itself is atypical: The opening has a gravity and a lyricism usually reserved for much later on (for example, in the Third Symphony) and it builds to a powerful climax. Eloquent woodwind lines alternate with fluttery material so characteristic of the composer (beautifully caught by the recording)—a couple of times the Concerto for Orchestra momentarily comes to mind, for example. Although the composer described this symphony as “ordinary,” it takes several listens to get the measure of the structure of both movements. The second, longer, movement is more enigmatic: somewhat sectional (emphasized by the indexing on the CD, which divides it into four tracks) with a climax that Gardner judges perfectly. Clearly the composer does not want to have a typical Lutos?awski weighty ending, but underplay this climax and the whole work would sag. It’s followed by a very vestigial coda for solo violins accompanied by distant clarinet and percussion, the latter almost, but not quite, inaudible. And then there’s a brisk ending that risks being heard as stuck on as an afterthought but just about works in this reading. My only trivial cavil about the recording of the symphony is that the orchestral piano is surely too forward, but otherwise all is well.
I’ve not heard this SACD on appropriate equipment but, through a high-end stereo system, it sounds very good indeed. The perspectives are natural with plenty of detail and a well-judged amount of air around the performers. The balance between the soloist and the members of the orchestra is especially well judged, with the piano being given enough weight and prominence without it dominating the orchestra, even when the latter is deploying only chamber-band numbers. This must be due, in part, to the choice of a Fazioli grand, which is a delight to listen to in its own right (it is also the orchestral piano in the symphony). I’m looking forward to the next release in this series, sponsored by the Adam Mickiewicz Institute, which will include the Cello Concerto and Second Symphony. Meanwhile this SACD is strongly recommended.
FANFARE: Jeremy Marchant
Works on This Recording
Symphonic Variations by Witold Lutoslawski
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1938; Poland
Symphony no 4 by Witold Lutoslawski
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1993-1994; Poland
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