This 20th Century Classics set is the latest packaging of EMI's great recordings of Lutoslawski's orchestral works from 1976/1977. (Amazon has annoyingly substituted the cover of the 2008 Gemini edition for the cover of this 2011 reissue, and refuses to correct it -- you can find the actual cover in the Customer Images.) The conductor leads the Polish Radio National Symphony Orchestra in great performances.
DISC ONE Symphonic Variations (1936-38) 8'52 Symphony No. 1 (1941-47) 24'43 Musique Funebre (Funeral Music for Strings) (1954-58) 13'30 Symphony No. 2 (1965-67) 31'22
The pre-war "Symphonic Variations" is a light piece in the Stravinskian mode. Clearly Lutoslawski has not yet developed his own voice. "Symphony No. 1" is very strong, an excellent first symphony heavily influenced by the music of Stravinsky, Bartok, Hindemith, Prokofiev, and Roussel. Lutoslawski's distinctive voice is not yet heard, but it was being forged as he grappled with and synthesized some of the best of the early 20th century's developments. With dynamic, propulsive outer movements and inner movements compellingly reflective, "Symphony No. 1" gives no sign of being written during the war. By the time is was completed it would have made uplifting post-war music, but it was banned by the Polish regime because it made some slight use of Schoenberg's 12-tone method, which was strictly forbidden at the time.
Subsequently Poland pursued a more open cultural policy, and Lutoslawski was able to experiment more boldly as the 1950s progressed. "Musique Funebre" is one of his masterpieces, a 12-tone work dedicated to Bartok that anyone can love, with a strong shape and dark tones featuring the interval of a semitone as an anchor. "Symphony No. 2" is one of Lutoslawski's most radical works, featuring the "aleatoric" method of "ad libitum" playing from the orchestra, forcing the musicians to choose their own notes in many passages, within strict limits. The symphony is in two parts: Hesitant and Direct. The first part basically sets a mood, and is relatively formless. Then the second part forges strong contrasts and dynamics with blocks of instruments playing ad libitum. It definitely summons the rebellious, liberatory mood of 1967 -- "feed your head" indeed! I first heard this piece over 10 years ago, the later recording by Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Los Angeles Philharmonic on Sony. I was thoroughly unimpressed. This composer-led performance is much better, and now I can appreciate the radical score.
DISC TWO Concerto for Orchestra (1950-54) 28'26 Jeux venitiens (1960-61) 12'58 Livre pour orchestre (1968) 21'12 Mi-parti (1975-76) 14'35
Lutoslawski's "Concerto for Orchestra" is another of his masterpieces. While it shares some aspects of structure with Bartok's better-known piece of the same name, the content is altogether different. And while Bartok mocked Shostakovich with a quote from his Symphony No. 7, Lutoslawski respectfully includes the D-S-C-H motto in his final movement. The opening "Intrada: Allegro maestoso" is very strong and memorable, reminiscent of Shostakovich. It then moves through a quieter "Capriccio notturno e Arioso" before moving into a powerful closing "Allegro gusto." I have heard several recordings of this work, and this is by far the best, bringing out its rich Romantic potential in a way missed by Barenboim and the CSO. The PRNSO sounds splendid!
The three works that follow are all among Lutoslawski's most radical. "Jeux venitiens" (Venetian Games) is another masterpiece. It has always been one of my favorite Lutoslawski works, moving through delightful passages with light, airy instrumentation and making use of the aleatory method for the first time. "Livre pour orchestre" (Book for Orchestra) surprises the ear right away with its use of glissandos, indicating that Lutoslawski has been listening to Xenakis. Along with "Symphony No. 2" and the "String Quartet," this represents the high point of Lutoslawski's Sixties radicalism. The book bears repeated readings, but does not easily yield its secrets. Finally, "Mi-parti" is a lovely piece that is part of the conductor's move back toward convention, including passages of gentle lyricism and simplicity. Ultimately with works including his "Piano Concerto" he would abandon his Sixties experimentation altogether, but here he is only on the path, he has not yet arrived. It sounds superb.
*** *** ***
EMI has reissued this music many times, most recently in its Gemini series and as two of the discs in a 3-disc set. Whatever package it comes in, it sounds great -- essential music from one of the finest late 20th century composers.