All the best: Lutoslawski

A round-up of the finest recordings of work by this unassuming Polish composer

Witold Lutoslawski © FT

It happened all of 25 years ago. A dapper, professorial man arrived at my door at the appointed time, and we spent the next hour and a half talking about music – his music. He spoke quietly and unassumingly, using few words to express big ideas, in a manner I saw him replicate a few days later when he rehearsed a concert he was to conduct of his Funeral Music and Third Symphony. Like the man, the music spoke of charm, intelligence, imagination.

That man was Polish composer Witold Lutoslawski (1913-94), then at the height of his international fame. Recorded by the Berlin Philharmonic, lionised at the Proms and championed by Anne-Sophie Mutter, he was enjoying the payback for years of creative frustration and censorship. Throughout the Nazi occupation of Poland, the only way Lutoslawski could earn a living was by playing piano in a café. During the early communist era, the only scores he was allowed to submit for public performance were of easy-to-play music.

As censorship relaxed, Lutoslawski began to experiment with radical techniques and conduct his own music, a skill he developed better than most composers – as you can hear on the recordings he made in the 1970s with the Polish Radio National Symphony Orchestra. They are available on single discs from EMI or a three-CD package from Brilliant Classics.

His centenary next year should offer scope for reassessment, but with the Wagner and Verdi bicentenaries and Britten’s centenary all coinciding within the same 12 months, what chance is there that Lutoslawski’s voice will be heard? With no operas or controversy attaching to his name, he is not an easy composer to “sell”: maybe Esa-Pekka Salonen and London’s Southbank Centre can prove otherwise in the Lutoslawski festival they have organised, starting in January.

For those unable to get to a performance, there is an extensive Lutoslawski discography, much of it at bargain price on Naxos. The best introduction is a Chandos recording of six works for voice and orchestra, conducted by Edward Gardner. In Silesian Triptych and Chantefleurs et Chantefables, two soprano song-cycles sung by Lucy Crowe, Ravel and Szymanowski lie in the background, underlining the luminous, quasi-magical precision of Lutoslawski’s aesthetic – and the internationalism of his outlook, for his French-language settings are totally idiomatic. Toby Spence stresses the Britten-esque associations of Paroles tissées, while Christopher Purves captures the moody aura of Les Espaces du Sommeil, a powerful dreamscape.

Despite the beauty of his vocal oeuvre, Lutoslawski is best known for his purely orchestral pieces, the most important of which is the Symphony No. 3 – the one that famously begins with a Beethovenian call to order and continues without interruption until, 30 minutes later, the music comes to a halt with the same striking motif. There are no fewer than six interpretations on disc. The composer recorded it with the Berlin Philharmonic (paired with Les Espaces du Sommeil, sung by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, its dedicatee), but that version is inferior to Salonen’s with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. I also have a soft spot for Daniel Barenboim’s lived-in, joined-up performance with the Chicago Symphony.

The First, Second and Fourth Symphonies – the latter commissioned and recorded by Salonen – offer fewer rewards than the concertos. Mutter’s recording of Chain II and Partitademonstrates how well Lutoslawski understood the violin’s sound-colours, but Krzysztow Bakowski on Naxos is even more brilliant – and has the added attraction of the Interlude which Lutoslawski later added to link the two. The concertos for piano, cello and oboe are less immediately appealing than the Concerto for Orchestra, an early masterpiece recorded by Christoph von Dohnányi, Barenboim and Jukka-Pekka Saraste, whose recent live London Philharmonic version is paired with Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony.

Even though Funeral Music flirts with the 12-tone technique and Jeux venitiens with improvisation, Lutoslawski was incapable of an abrasive note or a crass gesture. His music always has a lyrical foundation, as Martha Argerich and Nelson Freire make clear in their scintillating recording of the Variations for piano duo.

During my interview with him in 1987, Lutoslawski said he saw music as “the means of communication between the real world and the ideal world of our dreams and wishes – everything that doesn’t exist in reality but exists in our imagination. My role is to establish a link between the ideal world and people who have no access to it.” Judging by the size and quality of Lutoslawski’s discography, he surely succeeded.

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