• Lutosławski: Vocal Works (Chandos, 2011)

Muzyka polska, volume two

Lutosławski: Vocal Works
Chandos CHAN 10688 (2011)
Lucy Crowe (sop), Toby Spence (ten), Christopher Purves (bar)
BBC Symphony Orchestra, cond. Edward Gardner

• Tryptyk śląski (Silesian Triptych, 1951)
• Lacrimosa (1937)
• Paroles tissées (1965)
• Śpijże, śpij (Sleep, sleep, 1954)
• Les Espaces du sommeil (1975)
• Chantefleurs et Chantefables (1990)

While the Polish composer Witold Lutosławski (1913-1994) may be best known for his orchestral works, such as the Concerto for Orchestra (1950-54) and Third Symphony (1981-83) which appeared on the first CD in this series (CHSA 5082), his vocal works constitute a highly significant thread that runs through his output from the 1930s to the 1990s.  In addition to many works for voice and piano written in the 1940s and 50s, including children’s songs, mass songs, and popular light songs (which he composed under the pseudonym ‘Derwid’), he also wrote works that he later orchestrated, such as the Twenty Christmas Carols (1946) and Five Songs (1957), plus a setting for chorus and orchestra, Trois poèmes d’Henri Michaux (1963).  This CD collects some of the works from Lutosławski’s early years as well as the three major works for voice and orchestra written after 1960: Paroles tissées (1965), Les Espaces du sommeil (1975) and Chantefleurs et Chantefables (1990).


Lacrimosa (1937) is the only surviving fragment of an intended Requiem and is the only sacred work in Lutosławski’s output.  As a work from Lutosławski’s student days, it is unsurprisingly reminiscent of the work of other composers.  It is a beautifully moulded cantilena for soprano, with stylistic archaisms akin to those in Szymanowski’s Stabat Mater, composed just eleven years earlier.

Silesian Triptych

In complete contrast is Silesian Triptych (Tryptyk śląski, 1951), which Lutosławski composed at the height of the post-war, Soviet-led doctrine of socialist realism.  This compelled composers to connect to the ‘broad masses’ of the people, and one way of doing this was through the medium of folk culture.  Most Polish attempts along these lines were leaden, but Lutosławski was a master of invention in his folk-based works of the early 50s.  Silesian Triptych takes three Silesian songs about the trials of love and gives them both sparkle and pathos in ways which lift them above the mundanity of contemporary life.  The first plays vigorously with the lyric’s rhythmic emphases, while the second is notable for the delicacy of its orchestration in the outer sections (harp, flute, piano, celesta and cymbals).  The bocca chiusa vocalise at the end is a particularly poignant interpretation of a young girl’s unrequited love.  Proposing that simple pleasures outweigh riches, the final song dances in metric cross-currents that were also characteristic of Lutosławski’s instrumental pieces of the early 1950s.

Sleep, sleep

Sleep, sleep (Śpijże, śpij, 1954) is a delightful vignette typical of Lutosławski’s children’s songs.  The combined evocation of miaowing kittens and a mother soothing her baby to sleep in his cradle is expressed in simple terms.  The song belongs to a special strand in Lutosławski’s output that culminated in the nine songs of Chantefleurs et Chantefables.

Paroles tissées

When Poland emerged from the cultural oppression of the post-war decade, its music flourished in an outstanding way.  New figures of international stature appeared, such as Krzysztof Penderecki and Henryk Mikołaj Górecki (both born in 1933), while of the older generations Lutosławski quickly established himself as the pre-eminent voice.  From Five Songs onwards, he developed a distinctive language, based on twelve-note harmony and ad libitum rhythmic ideas, which was both technically flexible and powerfully expressive.  In the first half of the 1960s, his music had a raw energy, but by 1965 it had developed a subtler guise.

The first work to show this new subtlety extensively, Paroles tissées, was written for and premiered by Peter Pears.  The title, meaning ‘Woven Words’, was suggested by the poet, Jean-François Chabrun, whose Quatre tapisseries pour la Châtelaine de Vergi (Four Tapestries for the Châteleine de Vergi) inspired Lutosławski.  Chabrun’s text, in its frequent returns to key phrases, offered the composer a structure that encouraged an instinctive musical approach.  He understood the poetry’s content as having the ‘logic of dreams’.  But. as his next vocal work also demonstrates, Paroles tissées is not built around loose association but designedly places the main climax towards the end (in the Third Tapestry), a structural procedure that also drove most of his instrumental works.

The instrumental forces in Paroles tissées are quite modest: strings, harp and piano.  Yet, without recourse to the extended instrumental techniques found in much other music of the mid-1960s, Lutosławski conjures up textures that range from the elusive to the emphatic.  Often, as at the very beginning, the music melts and merges in what he would later call ‘bundles’ of lines, each built up of tiny motifs whose elasticity keeps the music moving (this aleatoric elasticity is a development of the cross-metres of the 1950s).  The vocal line begins as a heightened recitative, suggestive, even nervous, rather than declamatory.  At the start of the Second Tapestry, it becomes more overtly melodic, drawing its ideas from the harp’s music while the other instruments in part support, in part punctuate.

The Third Tapestry is the most directional of the four.  The instrumental climax, typically marked ‘AD LIB.’, is cathartic but, instead of tailing off as in many of Lutosławski’s purely orchestral works, it is taken further by the soloist until he reaches the second, anguished climax at ‘Mille coqs hurlent ma peine’.  At this point, Lutosławski gives the tenor a line of luminous perfect fourths and fifths.  the final tapestry (which follows, like its predecessors, without a break) continues the pattern of recalled and repeated textual phrases given new musical ideas.  Lutosławski understood that the pallor and sleep referred to in the opening line indicated the state of death, and the vocal line develops the sort of weeping cantilena that became an integral part of subsequent compositions.

Les Espaces du sommeil

Les Espaces du sommeil, dedicated to and premiered by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, is a setting of poetry by the French surrealist poet Robert Desnos.  Once again, the poem’s repeated textual phrases and climax towards the end fitted Lutosławski perfectly, although he himself preferred to emphasise that the link between text and music in this work was ‘subjective and intuitive’.  Sleep is once again his subject matter, this time a a sleep haunted by the mysterious ‘you’ – ‘Il y a toi’, one of two refrains (the other being ‘Dans la nuit’) whose repetitions dominate both the text and music.  In the initial stages, these refrains provoke a fantastical sequence of dream-state images, as in Paroles tissées.  The flickering opening may bring to mind Bartók’s night music, or Szymanowski’s First Violin Concerto, or even the second song in Silesian Triptych.  Perhaps it also embodies rapid eye movement.  In the calmer second section (‘Il y a toi, l’immolée, toi que j’attends’), the strings provide a harmonic pillow as the soloist dreams of his distant beloved.

Subtle changes in orchestration (the introduction of horns and trumpets to the flickering textures) presage the darker third section (‘Il y a toi sans doute que je ne connais pas’), which gathers momentum and climaxes instrumentally after the baritone cries out about ‘le mouvement ténébreux de la mer, des fleuves, des fôrets, des villes, des herbes, des poumons de millions et millions d’êtres’.  The trauma dissolves as the vocal line begins a beguiling series of phrases on the word ‘sommeil’, sinking lower and lower until it rises again for the final ‘Dans la nuit il y a toi’.  This is followed, in a moment of visionary clarity, by ‘Dans le jour aussi’.  At this realisation, the dream shatters and vanishes.

Chantefleurs et Chantefables

If Les Espaces du sommeil develops a new lyrical quality, even majesty, that was to colour some of Lutosławski’s later orchestral pieces, Chantefables et Chantefleurs harks back to the miniatures of the 40s and 50s and to topics accessible to children.  The lighter idiom of these nine charming songs recalls the tradition of French music that Lutosławski so admired, Ravel in particular.  Again, the poet is Desnos, although he too is in a different frame of mind in these whimsical verses about flora and fauna.

Lutosławski matches Desnos’s poetry with delicate touches of colour, poised in the first song (about the ‘Belle-de-nuit’ whose tendrils wind their way at midnight into a sleeping child’s bedroom), unpredictable in the next (about a female grasshopper).  The other songs about flowers (nos 4, 6 and 8) are also exquisitely detailed and lyrical, while the songs about the tortoise (no. 5) and the alligator (no. 7) are especially delightful in their humour and in having, like most children’s stories, a moral to tell.  The surreal tale of the fate of 300 million butterflies in no. 9 is brilliantly captured.  But perhaps the most enchantingly etched is the third song, in which flora and fauna come face to face, the ‘pretty’ speedwell and the ‘handsome’ bull.  Desnos’s ‘moral’ here, both witty and down-to-earth, is encapsulated by Lutosławski with the sort of telling musical gesture and precise sonority that distinguished his musical imagination from his earliest days as a composer.

 © 2011 Adrian Thomas


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