LUTOSLAWSKI: Orchestral Works, Vol. 5 (Concerto for Orchestra. Three Poems by Henri Michaux. Mi-Parti. Overture for Strings)
Polish National Radio Symphony Orch/Antoni Wit, cond. Camerata Silesia.
NAXOS 553779 (B) (DDD) TT: 70:52

Witold Lutoslawski for me is Poland's foremost composer since Frédéric Chopin. This is not to diminish the achievements of Karol Szymanowski (1882-1937), or in this century the underrated Grazyna Bacewicz, the problematic Krzysztof Penderecki or the long-martyred Andrzej Panufnik (Lutoslawski's almost exact contemporary). But the late master -- his name is pronounced "Vee-told Lootus-waff-ski" -- was consistently productive on the highest level from the end of World War 2 until his death five years ago, at the age of 81.

He was a late bloomer, in part because of World War 2, who didn't feel he's found his true voice until Jeux Vénetiens in 1961 (a.k.a. Venetian Games), to be heard in Vol. 6. (Its length, by the way, is misstated on the sleeve as 8:17 rather than 13:21.) Like Penderecki, who was 30 years younger but phenomenally precocious, Lutoslawski adapted John Cage's basic principles of "chance" music -- known is tonier circles as "aleatory" -- but with rigid control over improvisatory passages in his scores.

WL's masterpiece in this form is Trois Poémes d'Henri Michaux for chorus and orchestra, in Volume 5 of Antoni Wit's ongoing overview of the composer's complete orchestral music with the National Radio Symphony in Katowice. If the latter work needs a live performance for maximum impact (Margaret Hillis conducted one such in Chicago nearly 30 years ago), these Poems can be hair-raising on disc -- in the present case if you goose the gain-control. Like every Naxos CD I've heard -- and plenty of them, albeit a mere double-digit fraction of that copious budget-catalog -- one must compensate for dynamic reticence, as if Klaus Heymann's staff believes that inner-groove distortion still poses a danger on CD.

Henri Michaux lived a long life (1899-1984), but the three short poems that WL chose -- "Thoughts," "The Great Combat" and "Repose in Misfortune" -- are between-wars works. The music itself can't adequately be described, much less in brief. It needs to be experienced, then heard again and again; believe me, wonders compound if your ears don't shut down after Till Eulenspiegel.

In Vol. 5, Trois Poémes is followed by Mi-parti, composed for the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra in 1975-76 although introduced at Rotterdam with WL himself conducting. The music is intricately structured, indubitably intellectual, and very beautiful to hear over the course of 15 minutes -- his most "popular" concert-piece worldwide.

The first work in Vol. 5 is the Concerto for Orchestra. Created between 1951 and 1954 at the request of conductor Witold Rowicki, it is a marvelous work that WL tended to denigrate if not disavow, wrongly in my view. Inattentive critics have tended to lump it with Bartok's of 1943, as if that title had been the Hungarian master's invention. It had been around for decades, and was revived in 1925 by Hindemith. The music is very much WL's own (if you'll permit me the heresy, it is a finer work in totality than Bartók's) -- three movements for very large orchestra lasting half-an-hour. Despite some folk elements, it is non-programmatic music with baroque roots and dissonantly total diction.

Wit conducts to the manner with an orchestra able to wink at its difficulties, but again the recording falls short of ideal; a weak bass all but obliterates the low string opening of the final movement passacaglia, based  on a virtually inaudible theme!  Blame (elsewhere, too, in Katowice recordings of Wit and his orchestra) rests entirely with Beata Jankowska as producer and engineer. Fie, lady!  Get thee to a seminar! The 1949 Overture for Strings that concludes Vol. 5 goes back to 1949 -- further evidence of the composer's excellence before he was willing to acknowledge it.

Vol. 6 gives us two more "early" works -- a powerful, four-movement First Symphony begun in 1941 but not finished till 1947, yet all of a piece stylistically. It's rigorous neo-classicism suggests Albert Roussel with an eastern-European accent. Silesian Triptych, folk-song settings for soprano and orchestra, is the most conventional music in WL's surviving canon. It is sweetly beautiful and beautifully sung here by Ukranian soprano Olga Pasiecznik, just 30, who is a star in the making.

Her singing of nine Chantefleurs et Chantefables, written for children in 1991 to poetry by the French surrealist Robert Desnos, is comparably delectable. In direct competition with Dawn Upshaw on Sony, accompanied by Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Los Angeles Phil, Pasiecznik invests more humor and subtlety in both her singing and her characterization of flowers and animals. I won't trade Upshaw (certainly not with Paul Crossley's playing of the swan-song Piano Concerto, or Salonen's bracing performance of the Second Symphony), but the Ukranian soprano is the one I'll return to when I want to hear this charming music in the vein of Poulenc's Le Bestiare.

For a bonus at the end of Vol. 6, there's the first of three sphinx-like Postludia, this one celebrating the Centennial Congress of the Red Cross. More bonuses in this ongoing series are authoritative program notes by Keith Anderson (Vol. 5) and Andzrej Chlopecki (Vol. 6). You may, as I do, need a magnifying glass to read them, but how many other CD labels today can match their comprehensiveness? You won't need more than 10 fingers to count the competition, maybe fewer.

R.D. (