About this Recording
8.555994 - LUTOSLAWSKI, W.: 20 Polish Christmas Carols / Lacrimosa / 5 Songs (Polish Radio Choir, Polish National Radio Symphony, Wit)
English  German 

Witold Lutoslawski (1913–1994)
Twenty Polish Christmas Carols • Lacrimosa • Five Songs

If one takes 1954, the year that Witold Lutos1awski completed his Concerto for Orchestra [Naxos 8.553779] and began work on his Musique funèbre [8.553202], as the mid-point in his composing, then the vocal works which follow amount to just four major pieces: from the 1960s the Trois poèmes d’Henri Michaux [8.553779] and the song-cycle Paroles tissées [8.553423]; from the 1970s the ‘scena’ Les espaces du sommeil [8.553423]; and from the 1980s the song-cycle Chantefleurs et Chantefables [8.554283]. Before 1954, however, vocal music comprises a large part of what Lutos1awski wrote; the greater part, indeed, during the decade after 1945, when a rapid implementing of Socialist Realist cultural policies by the Polish authorities made it hard for the composer to pursue the line of development evinced in his earlier orchestral and chamber works.

Of the dozen or so vocal collections to emerge at this time, by far the most substantial and, from a latterday perspective, surely the most attractive is the Twenty Polish Carols that Lutos1awski assembled in 1946. This was originally arranged for solo voice and piano, and given its partial première by the soprano Aniela Szleminska and pianist Jan Hoffman in Kraków during January 1947. The composer returned to the carols almost four decades later, transcribing seventeen of them for soprano, female choir and chamber orchestra for performance in London by Marie Slorach with the London Sinfonietta and Chorus on 15th December 1985. The remaining carols were added some four years later, and the complete sequence heard in Edinburgh, with Susan Hamilton, together with the Scottish Philharmonic Singers and Scottish Chamber Orchestra, on 14th December 1990. On that occasion the carols were performed in an English translation by the musicologist and Lutos1awski authority Charles Bodman-Rae, but the present recording uses the Polish texts originally selected by the composer.

The texts and melodies of the Twenty Polish Carols were compiled from three collections of Spiewnik kóscielny published by Father Michal Mioduszewski in 1838, 1842 and 1853, as well as his Pastoralki i koledy z melodyjami of 1843 and Oskar Kolberg’s Lubelskie of 1883 and Leczyckie of 1889 (all six volumes being originally published in Kraków). The carols can be performed singly, as a selection, or as a complete entity, in which case they comprise a musical sequence as substantial as it is varied.

The sequence begins with Angels to the shepherds came, in a simple yet eloquent setting for choir. There follows the brief Hey! We rejoice now, with its lively evocation of bells, then soprano and choir alternate in the gentle setting of When the Christ to us is born. The lightly tripping rhythm of Just after midnight is typical of Lutoslawski’s folk-inspired music of this period, as is the piquant modal harmony of God is born, once again with an effective contrast between choral and solo entries. The pensive rhythm of Our Lovely Lady is duly sustained in a mood of solemn contemplation, unlike the appropriately fleet Hurrying to Bethlehem. The undulating motion of In a manger helps to make this one of the most attractive of all the carols, and complements the ruminative calm of Jesus there is lying, before the more incisive atmosphere of We are shepherds marks the cycle’s mid-point.

Lullaby, Jesus is most notable for the delicacy of its harp writing, and Hey, on this day for its bustling string accompaniment, while piano and xylophone, heard against ethereal string harmonies, enhance the discreetly sensuous mood of Jesus lovely flower, the most extended carol of the cycle. There is a certain mischievous edge to the setting of Hey la, Hey la, shepherds there you are, which follows, and a bittersweet feel to What to do with this child? that is enhanced by plaintive bassoon writing. The minor-mode treatment of Hey, hey lovely Lady Mary gives the music a surprisingly doleful quality, though the mood brightens appreciably for the lively setting of This is our Lord’s birthday, with its chiming percussion. There is an appropriately questioning quality running though Shepherds, can you tell?, and a mood of rapt eloquence duly characterizes the music of Infant, so tiny. The sequence then comes to a gentle though not necessarily serene conclusion with Holy Lady Mary, its expressive ambiguity perhaps suggested by the words which evoke one who “wondered through the world wide”.

The Lacrimosa for soprano, (optional) mixed chorus and orchestra, is one of two settings from the Requiem sequence that Lutos1awski composed in 1937 (the other, Requiem aeternam, was destroyed during the 1944 Warsaw Uprising) and submitted towards the Composition Diploma he received that year. First performed in Warsaw in 1938, it is almost his earliest surviving piece, preceded only by the 1934 Piano Sonata, and was revived by the composer at several of the concerts that he conducted later in his career. Lacrimosa opens with solo soprano sounding plaintive over strings and woodwind, the music reaching a brief climax before soloist and chorus take the piece to its passionate if short-lived culmination. The orchestra continues alone in a tender recall of the opening melody, before the final vocal cadence.

The Five Songs of 1957, setting texts from Rymy Dzieciece (Children’s Rhymes) by the Lithuanian-born poet Kazimiera Illakowicz (1892-1983), exhibit aspects of the more radical idiom Lutos1awski had begun to develop during the cultural ‘thaw’ that spread across Eastern Europe in the wake of Stalin’s death. First given with piano accompaniment by Krystyna Szostek- Radkowa in Katowice on 25th November 1959, they had already been arranged for ‘thirty solo instruments’, and were first heard thus in Katowice on 12th February 1960. Pronunciation difficulty has limited the extent of their performance outside Poland; something that Lutos1awski was to counter by turning to Frenchlanguage writers for his subsequent vocal works.

The Sea unfolds against a delicate, impressionistic backdrop of rippling harp and piano with divided strings, the texture gradually fanning out in harmonic density but remaining subdued in texture and dynamics. Contrast comes abruptly in the setting of The Wind, its rhetorical vocal line intensified by the counterpoint of string clusters and gamboling piano chords which fragments towards the close. String harmonics provide an ethereal ambience for the depiction of inanimate nature in Winter, the still centrepiece of the cycle, before striding piano figuration and percussive splashes, latterly tailing off into a musing uncertainty, are brought to bear on Knights. For the final song, Church Bells, a distanced yet insistent chiming pattern in upper strings is slowly intensified by the entry of piano and gongs. These latter are allowed to resonate after the soloist has ceased, so bringing this distinctive and discreetly cohesive group of songs to a thoughtful, even ominous close.

Richard Whitehouse


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