Lutoslawski: Symphonies, Concertos, Choral & Vocal Works

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The genius of Lutoslawski is evident as far back as his 1938 Symphonic Variations. The years after the war brought a return to more conventional...
The genius of Lutoslawski is evident as far back as his 1938 Symphonic Variations. The years after the war brought a return to more conventional national modes of composition, heard in his Little Suite and Concerto for Orchestra. Later works have allowed a more experimental approach on a broader palette, such as his Funeral Music of 1958, Preludes and Fugue for 13 instruments, and his Second Symphony. Characteristic works for voice and orchestra include Paroles tissees for tenor and chamber orchestra, and Three Poems by Henri Michaux for 20 voice and orchestra.

Reviews of some of the original recordings that make up this set:

Originally appearing as pieces for soprano and piano in 1946, Lutoslawski's 20 Polish Christmas Carols were re-worked by the composer 40 years later and eventually the complete set was scored for soprano, female choir, and orchestra. The texts and tunes came from several indigenous 19th-century collections, and were performed both in an English translation and (as here) in the original Polish. Let's get right to the point: These are some of the most beautiful creations for voices and orchestra in the repertoire, and if you haven't heard them, you must. You'll be surprised at how perfectly these unusual settings capture the mystery, the elation, the solemnity of the birth in Bethlehem, the folksy rejoicing of the shepherds, the ethereal atmosphere surrounding the manger and sleeping child, and the reflective, meditative mood of the whole miraculous event.

While there are plenty of "tunes" to savor, these are anything but simple harmonizations--or even what we'd call "arrangements"--of songs. The tunes are there--listen to "In a manger" or "Jesus there is lying", for example--but they are usually couched in the most gorgeous, un-carol-like harmonizations and instrumentation, given new and sophisticated rhythmic treatments that all together turn these carols into enthralling concert pieces. The brief "Just after midnight", with its catchy, irregular rhythm, and "Our Lovely Lady", with its touchingly plaintive melody, are two of the more enchanting numbers. In addition, Lutoslawski uses the women's voices in variations of register, textures, and voicing to make each carol different yet part of a larger sonic and dramatic picture.

Although this isn't a theatrical piece or even a true "song-cycle", Lutoslawski uses expressive, free melodic material and evocative orchestrations in such a variety of colors and moods that even without knowing the language, we are transported to a particular place and dramatic moment--and in this sense, the music often is closer to what we'd find in an operatic scene than in a set of self-contained choral pieces, exemplified in such settings as "Hey, hey lovely Lady Mary", "Hey la, Hey la, shepherds there you are", "God is born", and "What to do with this child?", the first two recalling the romanticism of Dvorák, the latter two as impressionistic as anything Debussy created. The fact is, virtually every one of these carols is a gem that will encourage many repeat listenings.

The other two works on the disc are much different yet are equally compelling. The three-and-one-half-minute Lacrimosa for soprano, mixed choir, and orchestra is a lovely, tender prayer for mercy (from the Requiem sequence), written in 1937, beautifully sung by Olga Pasichnyk, while the set of Five Songs for female voice and 30 solo instruments (from 1957) is nothing short of a masterpiece, a brilliantly conceived realization of poems (Children's Rhymes) from 20th-century Lithuanian poet Kazimiera Illakowicz. Although tonally somewhat ambiguous, the vocal lines and continuously fascinating instrumental scoring go together so well that we really don't notice the specifics of style or structural elements. The song "Winter" is a masterpiece within a masterpiece, showing what the coarsely atonal styles of dozens of early-to-mid-20th century composers could have been like if they'd had some warm blood in their veins or had allowed their music the slightest shred of human emotion.

The performers here are absolutely first rate. I'm especially happy that the two soloists are not only technically solid but have such rich, warm, expressive voices--not a hint of throatiness or of excessive vibrato; and the choir, particularly the women, makes such a lovely sound that you just want to hear more. The orchestra, and its conductor Antoni Wit, give exemplary performances--and there's nothing left to say except don't let this season pass without hearing this disc. Who knows why these pieces are not performed everywhere, all the time. But they should be--and this recording should be at the top of the list of best Christmas discs of 2005. [11/17/2005]

--David Vernier,


There is never a guarantee that this kind of thing will be a great performance, but the sense of poignancy around ‘last’ recordings will always be something of a draw. We are fortunate that what turned out to be Witold Lutos?awski’s final appearance as a conductor was recorded by CBC, and while all of these pieces can be found in excellent studio recordings elsewhere in the Naxos catalogue this turns out to be a fine programme, well performed and very serviceable as a live recording.

The Partita was originally written for violin and piano, and while the orchestration is the composer’s own I’m not sure I prefer this version to the purity of the chamber version. The trademark orchestral colours are quite distinctive and very effective, but transcribed from piano notes the result somehow sound a bit leaden and dated. Fujiko Imajishi is an able soloist, and I’m glad her part is not overly spot-lit in the recorded balance – mixing with and melting into the upper sonorities of the orchestra where the score demands this effect. The central Largo is always a movingly emotive section, and both soloist and orchestra create a nice atmosphere here. The delicate passages in the final Presto are lovely, and the harp and tuned percussion create a remarkable halo around the soloist.

With this live recording we are treated to a wash of applause at the end of each piece, but audience noise is otherwise very low. It needs to be at the opening of the magical Interlude, which begins with impossibly quiet strings. The piccolo is a little heavy handed for the first few little interjections, but apart from one or two mildly abrasively tuned string entries this is a decent enough performance. Conceived as a ‘dialogue for violin and orchestra’, Chain 2 is wider ranging than the Partita, and the playful effects of soloist and a variety of stunning orchestral effects is vibrant and lively in this recording. With good energy and such a wide range of contrasts this is a fine performance filled with plenty of stunning moments, with all of that edgy advantage a good live recording should have.

Chantefleurs et Chantefables is a continuation of Lutos?awski’s fascination with the poetry of Robert Desnos, beginning in the 1970s with ‘Les Espaces du sommeil’. This set of nine songs is filled with character and ranges in emotion from the perfumed romanticism of the opening La Belle-de-nuit to the sliding elusiveness of La Véronique, and including songs like L’Alligator which are rich in wit and warmly sardonic humour. The texts are unfortunately not given in the booklet, but Valdine Anderson’s singing is certainly one of the highlights of this disc. She doesn’t go too far out of her way in terms of ‘acting’ the various roles in a vocal sense, but the audience response at certain points certainly indicates some extra visual interaction. Her vocal quality is nicely pure, beautifully intonated and expressive, the orchestral accompaniments sensitive and potent by turns.

Potent indeed is the final work, Chain 1, which was written for the fourteen virtuoso London Sinfonietta players in the early 1980s during the period when Michael Vyner was their artistic leader. The ensemble playing might have been a bit tighter than it appears here in certain patches, but given once again the atmosphere of a live performance in which the players are clearly giving their all for their guest conductor/composer, and you are left with little cause for complaint.

This CD is more than just a souvenir of Witold Lutos?awski’s last conducted concert. Despite the availability of ‘cleaner’ versions of these pieces in Naxos’s excellent Lutos?awski series this recording can stand on its own two feet as an impressive testament to one of Poland’s legendary figures of 20 th century music. It should certainly be added as a supplement to anyone’s Lutos?awski collection, and belongs firmly shoulder to shoulder with his earlier studio recorded legacy on EMI.

-- Dominy Clements, MusicWeb International

Lutoslawski was one of the most important composers of the second half of the 20th century. His early works were relatively conservative in style, often making use of folk material. However, following the inauguration, in 1956, of the Warsaw Autumn Festival, one of the world's leading festivals of contemporary music, he embarked upon a new phase in his artistic development, since Poland was now making renewed contact with the prominent forces of the musical life of the West.

Lutoslawski gained an international reputation, as a distinctly modernist voice with a clearly individual personality. For more than thirty years from that time, he produced a succession of masterpieces for the world's leading soloists and orchestras.

This disc is Volume 7 in Naxos's continuing series of the complete orchestral music, which is itself a reflection of the composer's achievement. Antoni Wit and his talented orchestra (or, to be more accurate, the ensembles drawn from the orchestra) give good accounts of this challenging and rewarding music. The opening group, the Three Postludes, makes a particularly compelling impression, with real impact from the recording, despite the gap between the recording sessions. The orchestral textures and combinations are particularly interesting, and the three pieces have both individuality and a convincing sweep of inspiration. At this price the disc is worth investigating for these pieces alone.

The best known music recorded here is the Preludes and Fugues for 13 solo strings. Again the inspiration is of the highest order, the performance thoroughly idiomatic. A typical feature of this music is Lutoslawski's employment of 'chance elements' under the control of the wider context of the piece; therefore no two performances will be quite the same. The excellent booklet notes by Richard Whitehouse point out that this is the longest of the composer's mature compositions, but it is of course made up of smaller constituent parts which operate together.

The disc is completed by a sequence of shorter pieces, some of them very short indeed. For example, the Fanfare for CUBE first performed by the Philip Jones Brass Ensemble at the 1982 Lucerne Festival in 1982, plays for 28 seconds. But it is still an imaginatively contrived piece, the work of a major composer.

Lutoslawski is well served here. These performances all contribute to a highly successful combination, in thoroughly acceptable sound, with talented musicians performing under a gifted conductor.

-- Terry Barfoot, MusicWeb International

Product Description:

  • Release Date: August 27, 2013

  • UPC: 730099106641

  • Catalog Number: 8501066

  • Label: Naxos

  • Number of Discs: 10

  • Composer: Witold Lutoslawski

  • Conductor: Antoni Wit, Witold Lutoslawski

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Camerata Silesia Singers, Cracow Polish Radio/TV Chorus, Katowice Polish Radio/TV Symphony Orchestra, New Music Concerts, Polish National Symphony Orchestra, Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra, Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra Katowice

  • Performer: Adam Kruszewski, Andrzej Bauer, Arkadiusz Krupa, Bernd Glemser, Fujiko Imajishi, Jadwiga Rappé, Krysztof Bakowski, Nicolas Tulliez, Olga Pasichnyk, Peter Paleczny, Piotr Kusiewicz, Rafal Kwiatkowski, Urszula Kryger, Valdine Anderson, Zbigniew Kaleta