"THE ESSENTIAL LUTOSLAWSKI"
"Essential" is misleading, in spite of two performances under the late composer's meticulous and enlivening direction. Everything here has been recycled from the Philips vaults—a cache that its corporate sibling, DGG, beggars. So does the competition on Sony, and on Naxos lately in another overview eventually to be complete, God and Mammon willing. What's most right here is the price, remembering that only Symphony No. 3 and the song cycle Les espaces du sommeil (Sleep's Spaces) on texts by Robert Desnos came out originally on a Philips full-price CD lasting a mere 44:26. But then Philips and DGG were seldom generous with timings in the first decade-and-a-half of Compact Discs, before worldwide sales of classical recordings tanked—in part because of such mindlessly profit-driven marketing. The Symphony was commissioned in 1972 by the Chicago Symphony for its 85th birthday but not completed until 1983, two years after the 90th. Sir Georg Solti, who conducted the premiere, got it marvelously right—but only after several years of additional performances. It's sad that only a broadcast tape commemorates how right, not that Lutoslawski himself or Esa-Pekka Salonen on discs are short of the mark. However, neither the Berlin Philharmonic nor the Los Angeles Philharmonic has quite the combination of assets that influenced the composer's tailoring of the work—a superb piece which runs the gamut, in a span of 30 minutes, from consonance to chance music and back without a seam showing or a beat lost. The song cycle, commissioned by Fischer-Dieskau, was recorded by him in unidiomatic French with those familiar mannerisms of diction and expression that, as his voice lost range, suavity and nuance, have hardened into mannerisms as affected and exasperating as Elisabeth Schwarzkopf's. Both were treasurable singers early on in their postwar careers: listen to Schwarzkopf's Four Last Songs of Richard Strauss in EMI's pre-stereo performance conducted by Otto Ackermann, or the first and second of FiDi's Schubert Die schöne Müllerin cycles. But by the time they recorded Hugo Wolf's Liederbuchs together, and a good deal else individually, the quirks and jiggery-pokery had come to sound like self-parody.
Les espaces du sommeil is not one of my favorite Lutoslawski works, although I regard him as one of the world's four, at most six, outstanding composers since the end of World War II. The earlier Paroles tissées, to verses by the same surrealist poet who died in the Nazis' concentration camp at Terézin, are subtler and more evocative music. But Les espaces is nonetheless distinguished, and singable—no small treasure in a century of Sprechstimme and other voice-defying, voice-destroying conflations. Both concertos are substantial pieces—unmistakably the work of Lutoslawski once his style has revealed itself to attentive listening. The Cello Concerto has thrillingly confrontational intervals, played with pride of ownership by Heinrich Schiff, while the Flute and Oboe Concerto is more puckish, with all kinds of tricksy turns for Heinz Holliger, an oboist able to do everything, it appears, but produce a full, dulcet tone without whinnying or a throbbing vibrato. The dashing variations on Paganini's 24th Caprice for two pianos, a wartime work reconstructed after, and likewise humorous as well as ingenious, are dashingly played by Martha Argerich and Nelson Freire. The string choir and percussion section of the Bavarian Radio Symphony do handsomely by Dance Preludes of 1954-55, tonally-centered folk evocations, which feature clarinettist Eduard Brunner. Of genuine historical interest are the three 1964 recordings by Witold Rowicki, Poland's leading conductor of the postwar period, with the fine Warsaw National Orchestra he built from scratch. These were the first performances issued stateside of Lutoslawski's brilliant but underrated Concerto for Orchestra, his funerary music in memory of Bartók, and Venetian Games , the crossover classic from "traditional" to aleatory music. These have been digitally remastered (although nothing else in the collection) with astonishing finesse: a flat perspective lacks concert-hall ambience, but textural clarity, balances, and frequency range as heard here are fresh experiences, scarcely short of revelatory. What had been alternately mud-covered and raucous on an early Philips CD has come up clean, to the composer's advantage as well as Rowicki's (r.i.p. twice). There hasn't been a comparable reading of the Concerto on discs to date, nor has any of Jeux venétiens been as rich in discovery as Rowicki's. Other than inaccurate merchandising, the only cheese-paring has been a mere two pages in the program book about the composer and his music. No song texts, no details, just an English translation of florid and nonspecific notes, originally in German. Not only cost-ineffective but dumb—there's no other place to find what Les espaces means, unless one speaks French, and then there's the roadblock of FiDi's mumbly, anti-Gallic pronunciation. Recommended to new friends of Lutoslawski's music, but with caveats listed in the paragraph above.
R.D. (Feb. 2000)