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 Recording of the Week  Salonen conducts Lutosławski Symphonies

As well as this year’s major anniversaries for Britten, Wagner, and Verdi, it should not be forgotten that 2013 is the one-hundredth anniversary of the birth of the Polish composer, Witold Lutosławski. To mark this centennial, Sony Classical has released a set of the composer’s four symphonies, with Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Esa-Pekka Salonen
Esa-Pekka Salonen

The LA Phil had a very close association with the composer, especially in the last decade of his life (in 1993, the orchestra gave the world première of the Fourth Symphony, with Lutosławski himself conducting). Salonen, in my opinion a wonderful composer in his own right, is also the ideal conductor for this kind of repertoire: he not only knew Lutosławski personally but remains a committed advocate of his music. Salonen has said that Lutosławski’s works “possess the beauty of a giant organism, like a tree, or maybe a forest. We are moved by the logic of the form and the inevitability of growth. We perceive the music in shapes and lines, overall characteristics of the musical texture, and contrasts between movement and static situations.”

If you’re not familiar with any of Lutosławski’s music, then I would suggest that the First Symphony is the best starting point. Begun whilst he was living in Nazi-occupied Warsaw and completed in 1947, the symphony is probably the most approachable in terms of its tonal language, with Stravinsky-inflected Neoclassicism in the first and last movements, and a horn solo accompanied by long, searching string lines in the second movement that sounded to me as if they could be straight out of a Shostakovich symphony.

The playing of the LA Phil is truly dazzling throughout: they really bring out all the exciting colours of Lutosławski’s music, especially the blazing trumpets, rousing horns and sparkling woodwind. Unfortunately, when the piece was first performed in 1948, not everyone was quite so enthusiastic; indeed one of those critics was Lutosławski himself, who felt the need to cast this style of writing aside and search for a new musical language. Nevertheless, despite the composer’s concerns, I think it is a fine piece, especially when given such an impressive recording as this one.

The later symphonies offer the fruit of this search for a new form of expression, especially the Third and Fourth, in which Lutosławski experimented with a one-movement span, much as Sibelius had done with his Seventh Symphony. My favourite of the four is definitely the Third Symphony: I’ve mentioned the fantastic playing of the orchestra already, but this performance in particular has so many moments of virtuosity, from the furious roar of the viola section about a third of the way through, to the portentous tuba solo and deranged trombone cackling towards the end of the piece. I humbly contend that it’s one of the great twentieth-century symphonies, and deserves to be heard much more widely than it is.

Also included in this set is a piece written especially for the orchestra, Fanfare for Los Angeles Philharmonic. Scored for just brass and percussion, the piece lasts under a minute, and serves as a rousing introduction to the set. Altogether then, this is a great introduction to the works of Lutosławski. The playing is stunningly dynamic throughout, and makes for an excellent showcase for the range of emotions and moods that these symphonies offer. Although only the First Symphony and the Fanfare were newly recorded for this set (the other three symphonies have all been previously available), the sound is remarkably consistent, and even the oldest of the recordings sounds fresh and vibrant. Highly recommended!

Lutoslawski: Complete Symphonies

Los Angeles Philharmonic, Esa-Pekka Salonen

Available Formats: CD, MP3, CD Quality FLAC