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Dominy Clements
MusicWeb International, December 2010

Beautifully presented in a nice slipcase and with a substantial booklet, this Opera Omnia series of recordings of the work of Witold Lutosławski already has plenty of competition. The Symphony No. 2 as recorded by Lutosławski himself with the Polish Radio National Symphony Orchestra on the bargain 3 CD set EMI 2 15318 2 might legitimately be taken as definitive, and is indeed very fine even considering its 1970s vintage (review review). This new Wroclaw recording is similar in many respects, though the ‘Hesitant’ subtitle of the first brass section is taken a little more literally by Jacek Kaspszyk, the tumult of notes initially a little more reserved. All of the sonic textures and contrasts are beautifully captured here, and the playing is very good indeed. The Symphony No. 2 is a work of eruptions large and small, flowing streams of selected notes, articulations and rhythms from the different sections in a kind of aleatoric ‘concerto for orchestra’. The second movement, subtitled ‘Direct’, emerges from lowing basses and sliding strings to a series of textures and ideas of terrific impact. The harmonic effect of brass and strings about two minutes in always makes my hair try to stand on end, and it is here that the newer recording has a telling advantage, the elderly recording under the conductor still very effective, but more of a chaos of sound rather than the sense of layers and detail you have with this new recording. Another competitor; that from conductor Antoni Wit with the same Polish NRSO in 1994 on Naxos 8.553169 also has the benefit of digital recording technology, but his overall sound is more general, his gestures less theatrical and the impact less hair-raising. In other words, Kaspszyk comes out top dog with this Symphony No. 2.

Lutosławski’s Symphony No. 4 is an almost entirely different animal, integrating more traditional aspects of Western orchestral composition with the composer’s individual and instantly recognisable language. It does share a fragmentary or block-structured feel with the Second Symphony, having what at first seem to be unrelated juxtapositions of atmosphere and melodic intent. Material develops with parallel logic however, and while the mysterious nature of the piece never really reveals its enigmatic secrets there is plenty with which the mind can get to grips and relish. The figure responsible for its commission and a champion of the work is Esa-Pekka Salonen. Here my comparison is again with Antoni Wit on Naxos 8.553202 which is very good indeed, but again without quite the sense of involvement I feel from Jacek Kaspszyk. “One must play exactly what is written in the score” the conductor is reported as saying in the booklet notes, which has to be true, but doesn’t deliver the entire story. Kaspszyk generates a sense of urgency and commitment in his players which makes the music all the more convincing. The strings are more forward in the recording which helps balance things more effectively, but one has the feeling with this newer recording that any sense of transition is banished entirely—every note equal in significance and expressive potential, whether accompanying and background, solo figuration or massed melodic statement. With Wit the Symphony No. 4 is a remarkable orchestral piece; with Kaspszyk it grows into something which infests your imagination, a voiceless opera for the mind, filled with strange visions, dark characters and deeply dramatic moods.

This Opera Omnia series and the Project National Music Forum in Wroclaw is one on which it is worth keeping a close eye. With all-round high production values this is an object to treasure and a recording with terrific staying power.

Allen Gimbel
American Record Guide, November 2010

Volume 2 of Accord’s traversal of Lutoslawski’s Complete Works.

Symphony 2 (1965–67) is an extended experiment in the composer’s famous “limited aleatoricism” technique that uses rhythmic randomness in the service of controlled cluster harmonies and strictly plotted formal design. The symphony is in Lutoslawski’s soon-to-be characteristic two movements. These carry the titles ‘Hesitant’ and ‘Direct’: the first alternates short somewhat uncertain episodes based on contrasting orchestral groups with a not very happy “refrain” of double reeds separating them, and the second forms a direct dramatic line from blocks of energetic chaos to powerful unified ensemble playing (from material actually taken from an earlier piece), inevitably falling apart as the Cold War eventually did. The piece makes a suitably overwhelming impression and is an impressive sample of the style of the time, though better than most.

Symphony 4 (1993) has a neoromantic, somewhat valedictory quality. It opens with a lengthy clarinet melody soon beset with interruptions; the long lines continue moving into an intense allegro with chromatic development. The overall structure is extremely episodic and hard to follow, though the effect is certainly powerful. The big climax dissipates into mournful fragments. The energetic coda is brusquely cut short. Viewed by many as controversial or even ineffective, the piece certainly does leave a scattered impression, but it encourages later engagement.

Competition for the two symphonies includes Kofman on CPO and, for 4, Salonen on Sony. They were both released in the 90s, and I haven’t heard either. Lutoslawski conducts 2 on an obviously authoritative EMI release. Check indexes, but the present performances are excellent. The first dozen pages of the booklet were missing.

Jeff Simon
The Buffalo News, October 2010

Nothing could be more ironic happenstance than the shared national origins of the composers Szymanowski and Lutoslawski. These two Lutoslawski Symphonies are the virtual temperamental opposites of Szymanowski’s ecstatic works, reviewed above, from a half century (or more) earlier. And yet it was a not-entirely-thrilled Pierre Boulez who conducted the “torso” of the earliest premiere of Lutoslawski’s second symphony, an astonishing achievement in orchestration but, in its opening, a decidedly spartan musical experience, as if Messiaen had had his mysticism amputated. But then the massiveness of what he’s doing becomes more apparent and it’s extraordinary. The mysterious opening of the fourth symphony, obviously, is one of Lutoslawski’s more impressive achievements, but his music isn’t nearly as ripe for wholesale revival as either his predecessor Szymanowski or his successor Penderecki.

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