LUTOSLAWSKI: 20 Polish Christmas Carols / Lacrimosa / 5 Songs (Antoni Wit/ Jadwiga Rappe/ Olga Pasichnyk/ Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra/ Polish Radio Choir) (Naxos: 8.555994)
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Witold Lutoslawski (1913-1994)
Twenty Polish Christmas Carols Lacrimosa Five Songs
If one takes 1954, the year that Witold Lutos1awskicompleted his Concerto for Orchestra [Naxos8.553779] and began work on his Musique fun?¿bre[8.553202], as the mid-point in his composing, then thevocal works which follow amount to just four majorpieces: from the 1960s the Trois po?¿mes d'HenriMichaux [8.553779] and the song-cycle Paroles tissees[8.553423]; from the 1970s the 'scena' Les espaces dusommeil [8.553423]; and from the 1980s the song-cycleChantefleurs et Chantefables [8.554283]. Before 1954,however, vocal music comprises a large part of whatLutos1awski wrote; the greater part, indeed, during thedecade after 1945, when a rapid implementing ofSocialist Realist cultural policies by the Polishauthorities made it hard for the composer to pursue theline of development evinced in his earlier orchestral andchamber works.
Of the dozen or so vocal collections to emerge atthis time, by far the most substantial and, from a latterdayperspective, surely the most attractive is the TwentyPolish Carols that Lutos1awski assembled in 1946. Thiswas originally arranged for solo voice and piano, andgiven its partial premi?¿re by the soprano AnielaSzleminska and pianist Jan Hoffman in Krakow duringJanuary 1947. The composer returned to the carolsalmost four decades later, transcribing seventeen ofthem for soprano, female choir and chamber orchestrafor performance in London by Marie Slorach with theLondon Sinfonietta and Chorus on 15th December 1985.
The remaining carols were added some four years later,and the complete sequence heard in Edinburgh, withSusan Hamilton, together with the ScottishPhilharmonic Singers and Scottish Chamber Orchestra,on 14th December 1990. On that occasion the carolswere performed in an English translation by themusicologist and Lutos1awski authority CharlesBodman-Rae, but the present recording uses the Polishtexts originally selected by the composer.
The texts and melodies of the Twenty Polish Carolswere compiled from three collections of Spiewnikkoscielny published by Father Michal Mioduszewski in1838, 1842 and 1853, as well as his Pastoralki i koledyz melodyjami of 1843 and Oskar Kolberg's Lubelskie of1883 and Leczyckie of 1889 (all six volumes beingoriginally published in Krakow). The carols can beperformed singly, as a selection, or as a complete entity,in which case they comprise a musical sequence assubstantial as it is varied.
The sequence begins with Angels to the shepherdscame, in a simple yet eloquent setting for choir. Therefollows the brief Hey! We rejoice now, with its livelyevocation of bells, then soprano and choir alternate inthe gentle setting of When the Christ to us is born. Thelightly tripping rhythm of Just after midnight is typicalof Lutoslawski's folk-inspired music of this period, as isthe piquant modal harmony of God is born, once againwith an effective contrast between choral and soloentries. The pensive rhythm of Our Lovely Lady is dulysustained in a mood of solemn contemplation, unlike theappropriately fleet Hurrying to Bethlehem. Theundulating motion of In a manger helps to make this oneof the most attractive of all the carols, and complementsthe ruminative calm of Jesus there is lying, before themore incisive atmosphere of We are shepherds marksthe cycle's mid-point.
Lullaby, Jesus is most notable for the delicacy of itsharp writing, and Hey, on this day for its bustling stringaccompaniment, while piano and xylophone, heardagainst ethereal string harmonies, enhance the discreetlysensuous mood of Jesus lovely flower, the mostextended carol of the cycle. There is a certainmischievous edge to the setting of Hey la, Hey la,shepherds there you are, which follows, and a bittersweetfeel to What to do with this child? that is enhancedby plaintive bassoon writing. The minor-mode treatmentof Hey, hey lovely Lady Mary gives the music asurprisingly doleful quality, though the mood brightensappreciably for the lively setting of This is our Lord'sbirthday, with its chiming percussion. There is anappropriately questioning quality running thoughShepherds, can you tell?, and a mood of rapt eloquenceduly characterizes the music of Infant, so tiny. Thesequence then comes to a gentle though not necessarilyserene conclusion with Holy Lady Mary, its expressiveambiguity perhaps suggested by the words which evokeone who \wondered through the world wide".
The Lacrimosa for soprano, (optional) mixed chorusand orchestra, is one of two settings from the Requiemsequence that Lutos1awski composed in 1937 (the other,Requiem aeternam, was destroyed during the 1944Warsaw Uprising) and submitted towards theComposition Diploma he received that year. Firstperformed in Warsaw in 1938, it is almost his earliestsurviving piece, preceded only by the 1934 PianoSonata, and was revived by the composer at several ofthe concerts that he conducted later in his career.
Lacrimosa opens with solo soprano sounding plaintiveover strings and woodwind, the music reaching a briefclimax before soloist and chorus take the piece to itspassionate if short-lived culmination. The orchestracontinues alone in a tender recall of the opening melody,before the final vocal cadence.
The Five Songs of 1957, setting texts from RymyDzieciece (Children's Rhymes) by the Lithuanian-bornpoet Kazimiera Illakowicz (1892-1983), exhibit aspectsof the more radical idiom Lutos1awski had begun todevelop during the cultural 'thaw' that spread acrossEastern Europe in the wake of Stalin's death. First givenwith piano accompaniment by Krystyna Szostek-Radkowa in Katowice on 25th November 1959, they hadalready been arranged for 'thirty solo instruments', andwere first heard thus in Katowice on 12th February1960. Pronunciation difficulty has limited the extent oftheir performance outside Poland; something thatLutos1awski was to counter by turning to Frenchlanguagewriters for his subsequent vocal works.
The Sea unfolds against a delicate, impressionisticbackdrop of rippling harp and piano with dividedstrings, the texture gradually fanning out in harmonicdensity but remaining subdued in texture and dynamics.
Contrast comes abruptly in the setting of The Wind, itsrhetorical vocal line intensified by the counterpoint ofstring clusters and gamboling piano chords whichfragments towards the close. String harmonics providean ethereal ambience for the depiction of inanimatenature in Winter, the still centrepiece of the cycle, beforestriding piano figuration and percussive splashes,latterly tailing off into a musing uncertainty, are broughtto bear on Knights. For the final song, Church Bells, adistanced yet insistent chiming pattern in upper strings isslowly intensified by the entry of piano and gongs.
These latter are allowed to resonate after the soloist hasceased, so bringing this distinctive and discreetlycohesive group of songs to a thoughtful, even ominousclose.Richard Whitehouse