Witold Lutosławski Orchestral Works (feat. conductor: Edward Gardner; BBC Symphony Orchestra) Review

Album. Released 2010.  

BBC Review

Big-boned themes marinate in complex orchestral textures.

Andrew Mellor 2010

What’s this? The man who’s got English National Opera’s orchestra accompanying Puccini so passionately and emotionally has opted for Witold Lutosławski on his debut orchestral CD for Chandos?

In fact Lutosławski’s Concerto for Orchestra – the main course on this disc – isn’t a million miles away from Puccini under the surface: big-boned themes marinate in complex orchestral textures before emerging in pile-driving unisons. For added verisimo weight, many of those themes are lifted directly from Polish folk music.

In a narrative sense, too, the Concerto is wholly suited to Gardner’s strengths. As Lutosławski wrote the piece in 1954 he was experimenting with the idiosyncratic theories of Witold Malíszewski, who suggested separate musical movements should serve specific and separate narrative functions.

That in mind, Gardner’s ENO-honed ability to choose and hold a tempo and set a tangible mood from the off serves him well in each movement: there’s tautness and weight in the Intrada’s production line of pounding rhythms, a fine sense of pace to the slow-burn Passacaglia and impressive lightness in the piquant woodwind flutterings – even if they aren’t the most beautifully shaped.

In fact, the burnished sound and dramatic thrust in the Concerto is reminiscent of Lutoslawski’s own recording on EMI. It’s just a shame the strings sound so purposeful in their ghostly response to the Chorale in the third movement – a dollop more Vaseline on the lens would have created a more eerie effect, but it’s the only obvious dramatic nail that Gardner hasn’t hit head-on.

The sound world of Lutosławski’s 1983 Third Symphony is initially less lyrical and a whole-lot more spatial, fragmentary and modernist. While there is the occasional lapse in ensemble, the playing is finely shaped – the symphony throws the spotlight on just as many solo instruments and instrumental groups as the Concerto does.

Gardner comes into his own as the symphony collapses through glissando winds and brass towards a more cogent conclusion, but careful listeners will notice that he’s actually pretty adept at the more elusive, darkened corners of the piece, too (and in the accompanying filler, Chain 3). He might not be Pierre Boulez, but he’s got me very interested – especially given the promise of the spine label, ‘Polish Music Volume One’. Watch out for more.

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