Two releases help celebrate the Lutosławski Year: Sony Classical's double disc covering almost 3 decades of LA Philharmonic performances, and the 8-disc collection from the label Polskie Nagrania. Both feature the symphonies, conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen and by the composer, with other works in seminal Polish performances in the new box set supported by the Adam Mickiewicz Institute as part of Polska Music programme
Lutosławski: The Symphonies features the four works spanning 50 years of the composer's career. He'd conceived early themes in his first symphony before the Second World War; the world premiere of Symphony No. 4 came in 1993, the year before he died, and he conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Sony's disc set with the LA Phil and Maestro Salonen make an important survey of the composer said to have a relationship to the orchestra like Chopin's to the piano: fundamental and innovative.
The four works are spread throughout the Centenary Edition box, in performances by Lutosławski with the Warsaw Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra separated by about 25 years. This provides rich interpretive comparisons between the conductors - as does the Naxos label's survey of the symphonies conducted by Antoni Wit, also with the Warsaw Philharmonic.
Salonen came to Los Angeles to conduct the Philharmonic in 1984, at age 26. They performed Symphony No. 3, completed the year before and fast gaining acclaim as among the composer's finest achievements. The recording included on the Sony set, from late 1985, went on to a Grammy and Gramophone magazine's Award for Best Contemporary Record in 1986. Salonen leads the Philharmonic through the fascinating, airy opening passages, with horns and woodwinds darting and thrusting through Lutosławski's brilliant, increasingly threatening orchestral colors.
Then, during Salonen's tenure as musical director at the Philharmonic, he was in Stockholm in 1992 and joined the dinner when Lutosławski received the Royal Philharmonic Society's Gold Medal. As he relates in a video interview, the two spoke of the composer's engagement early the following year to conduct the Philharmonic – at which point he was asked "Would you be very upset if I changed the program?" Lutosławski had just finished his final symphony – Salonen says the music world had been awaiting the piece for about a decade – and he wanted to conduct the world premiere with the Phiharmonic.
Sony recorded Salonen's performance with the Philharmonic of Symphony No. 4 in late 1993, and acclaim included the prestigious Gran Prix du Disques in France. The articulation and pace of the recording make a case for clarity in a mysterious late work that's known as complicated to interpret - the composer's version on the Centenary Box, meanwhile, reaches a powerful expressiveness that's not Salonen's aim.
Salonen, now Conductor Laureate at the Philharmonic, returned to Sony Classical in December 2012 to record Symphony No. 1. Eighteen years had elapsed since they'd completed the other three works on the new release, and finishing the cycle for release in 2013 became a priority supported by the Adam Mickiewicz Institute in Warsaw. The first symphony flows with post-war vigour and bright passages for the string sections that reflect Prokofiev's force and Stranvinsky ease. Completed after the war in 1947, it became the first Polish work to be banned for "formalism" as socialist-realist strictures tightened under the communist authorities. It also made it clear to its creator that he needed new means to realise his musical imaginings – thus it stands as a springboard for Lutosławski's stylistic evolutions.
The Sony Classical package begins with Fanfare for Los Angeles Philharmonic, the composer's last work: concise – it's only a minute long - and rousing with sharp horns and punchy percussion, the piece helped celebrate the Philharmonic's 75th anniversary. Liner notes include Steven Stucky's detailed essay on the symphonies, but lack the context of the composer's relationship with Salonen and the Philharmonic – the performances are of course what matter, but the story of their origins can help deepen the musical purpose.
The Centenary Edition, the 8-disc box released by the label Polskie Nagrania with the publisher PWM Edition, tells its own concentrated story. The full array of Lutosławski pieces – orchestral, vocal, chamber music – provide important readings from top Polish performers. The composer conducts almost half of the 30 performances, with orchestras including the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra and the Warsaw Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra (its musical directors Witold Rowicki and Kazimierz Kord are among the other conductors).
Almost a dozen performances were recorded during editions of the Warsaw Autumn Festival. Lutosławski was involved in the contemporary music festival since the late 1950s and served on its selection committee. He emphasises, in a video interview made on a visit to Los Angeles late in his life, the committee's inclusion of work by "as many as possible of the young generation of composers". He also distinguishes, with mirth, two kinds of audience: "the Beethoven-Tchaikovsky public, and the people coming for contemporary music concerts, with entirely different expectations".
The programming over the discs in the Centenary Edition box is largely chronological, moving from Lacrimosa for soprano and orchestra - one of his few early pieces to survive the war - and the Symphony No. 1, which he worked on as possible through the war. By the second disc, Venetian Games for orchestra from 1961 announces his vital new aleatory techniqes. The entertaining heart of the matter comes with 1970s pieces: Preludes and a Fugue and the orchestral works Mi-Parti and Novelette on disc 4, then the famed Symphony No. 3 and the three Chain pieces, titled for another compositional innovation, the textural device of freeing composed sections to be played ad libitum.
A disc of chamber pieces starts with piano works - an accomplished pianist, he played in cafes through the German occupation, often with his fellow composer-conductor Andrzej Panufnik, whose own centenary is celebrated in 2014. It includes the ravishing Five Songs for female voice and 30 solo instruments from 1958, and the argumentative String Quartet from 1964, and later duo pieces for piano and oboe, cello or violin. A career survey in itself, the disc makes a powerful case of Lutosławski's ceaseless seeking of means of effective expression.
The final disc is an inspired choice, putting together three pieces the composer created separately then conjoined in his last years: Partita in the version for violin and orchestra (the violin-piano original is also in the box), Interludium, and Chain 2. They form a musical venture, an engaging 40-minute highlight of recent music that compliments and cajoles today's audience. Krzysztof Jakowicz is soloist for the two violin panels, joined by Krystyna Borucińska and conductor Wojciech Michniewski for the opening Partita. And Witold Lutosławski conducts the remaining panels, in performances from 1991 and 1992: an elder ambassador of culture, an elegant provocateur.