• Lutosławski: remastered (EMI, 2004)

Lutosławski: Orchestral Works, Songs, String Quartet
EMI Classics 5 85773 2 (2004)
Louis Devos, Halina Łukomska, Roman Jabłoński, Alban Berg Quartet, Polish Chamber Orchestra, Polish Radio National SO, Kraków Radio Chorus, cond. Witold Lutosławski

• Preludes and Fugue (1972)
• Trois poèmes d’Henri Michaux (1963)
• Paroles tissées (1965)
• Postlude 1 (1961)
• Five Songs (1957)
• Cello Concerto (1970)
• String Quartet (1964)

When Witold Lutosławski (1913-94) died in Warsaw ten years ago, it was a loss to musical culture not only in his native Poland but also world-wide.  He had become one of the major composers of the second half of the twentieth-century, showered with prizes, honours and commissions.  His music was premiered, recorded and frequently performed by leading international soloists and orchestras.  This selection of pieces amply demonstrates Lutosławski’s persuasive mix of avant-garde elements and a strong sense of musical tradition (this included composers from Beethoven, Chopin and Brahms to Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky and Bartók).  He was a classical modernist whose compositions used a contemporary language to investigate new ways of shaping familiar procedures of exposition, development or resolution.

Five Songs

Given Poland’s isolation from Western contemporary music during the repressive years of the Second World War and the Stalinist post-war decade, it is not surprising that Lutosławski began to make his mark internationally only in the late 1950s, when his folk-imbued and neo-classically inclined Concerto for Orchestra (1954) became his calling card.  The earliest work on these recordings, Five Songs (1957, orchestrated 1958), was crucial in Lutosławski’s shift towards a more modernist aesthetic.  The orchestral version underlines the suggestive, almost impressionistic nature of the musical language, which is often articulated by concentrating on certain intervals (thirds in nos.1, 3 and 4), a sculptural shaping of sound and a fondness for textural layering (the evocation of church bells in no.5).

Postlude no.1

Postlude no.1 (1958) is the only one from a set of three that Lutosławski was prepared to conduct himself.  It is notable mainly for the flickering textures of the outer sections.  The four main components are oboes and high piano (chromatic intervals), trumpets and harps (thirds), flutes, xylophone and celesta (tritones and minor ninths) and clarinets and low piano (perfect fourths and fifths).  Lutosławski frequently etched his harmonic ideas instrumentally and thus gave shape and drama to his technical language.  The main reason why Lutosławski was dissatisfied with Three Postludes was his inability to shape his materials as flexibly as his imagination wanted.  He found a long-lasting solution in his next work, Jeux vénitiens(1961), where he devised the technique of ‘aleatory counterpoint’, in which the essential elements (harmony, texture, structure) are firmly controlled but where the vertical alignment of ideas is freed by a degree of chance.

Trois poèmes d’Henri Michaux

Trois poèmes d’Henri Michaux (1963) provides many examples of this new freedom, as in the way early in the first movement where the woodwind shifts register around the female voices like a shoal of fishes.  The adventurousness of the score is also demonstrated by having two conductors, one for the 20-part choir and one for the orchestra (which has no string section).   At the climax of the vivid central movement ‘Le grand combat’, the two conductors and their forces seem to be trading blows, and a true resolution to the conflict is provided only in the unison F sharp in the final movement.

String Quartet

A concern for dramatic conflict and resolution also permeates the String Quartet (1964), whose two-part structure was one of Lutosławski’s favoured forms.  This is most telling in the way jagged octave C naturals several times interrupt the ‘Introductory’ movement, creating a sense of cumulative nervousness.  The ‘Main’ second movement is more directional, culminating in sections marked ‘Appassionato’, ‘morendo’ and ‘Funèbre’.  The transcendental, purifying quality of the ending characterises many of Lutosławski’s codas, although this one appears to have held particular personal significance for the composer.

Paroles tissées

His next work, Paroles tissées (1965), a setting of four ‘tapestries’ by the French writer Jean-François Chabrun, evokes medieval love-poetry.  Chabrun’s interweaving of repeated lines of the text across the four tapestries was a gift to the composer, who was able to use such recurrences to shape his musical argument.  The textural delicacy and the unerring sense of dramatic shape and timing, alongside the clarity of the vocal line (it was originally written for Peter Pears), mark this work out as one of the most distinctive song cycles of its time.

Cello Concerto

Lutosławski now returned to the full orchestra for his next three pieces: the Second Symphony (1967), the masterful Livre pour orchestre (1968) and the Cello Concerto (1970), commissioned and premiered by Mstislav Rostropovich.  This last work is one of the most significant concertos from the second half the twentieth century.  It starts with a four-minute soliloquy for the soloist.  The brass intervenes and tries to obliterate it, so the cello, undaunted, attempts to dialogue four times with other sections of the orchestra.  It is brought to an abrupt end each time.  On the fourth attempt, the cello interrupts the brass with a loud pizzicato and proceeds to merge with the string section in a passionate cantilena.  The finale is an almighty conflict between the soloist (representing individuality?) and the whole orchestra (the oppressive establishment?), in which the cello eventually flees, is caught, and seems to succumb with a whimper.  But, unlike many of Lutosławski’s codas, this one allows a dynamic resurrection, and the soloist rises to triumphant high A naturals that transform the ‘indifferent’ low D naturals with which the introductory soliloquy began.

Preludes and Fugue

The last work chronologically is Preludes and Fugue for thirteen strings (1972).  In its full version, as here, there are seven interlocked preludes and a substantial fugue in which the six ‘subjects’ are bundles of two or three thematically related lines tagged (in the order of first appearance) cantabile, grazioso, lamentoso, misterioso, estatico and furioso.  The whole work is a virtuoso display of how to translate disparate sketches into a dramatic scenario.

A final word on Lutosławski as a conductor.  Like his music, his conducting was to the point and always concerned to communicate with the utmost honesty and immediacy.  Most of these recordings were made in Poland in the mid-1970s and are an eloquent testimony to his art as both composer and interpreter.

© 2004 Adrian Thomas


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