Sunday, October 25, 2015

Witold Lutoslawski: Concerto for Orchestra/Three Poems/Mi-Parti

This excellent Naxos disc featuring the work of Polish composer Witold Lutoslawski (1913-1994) comprises his majestic, folk-tinged "Concerto for Orchestra" and the serial-based "Mi-Parti" performed by the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Antoni Wit, and "Three Poems," another twelve-tone type work by the Camerata Silesia, directed by Anna Szostak.

It is readily acknowledged that the "Concerto for Orchestra" from 1954 reflects a "neo-classical" bent with leanings towards the work of the great Bela Bartok.  It also has much of the grandeur of Romantic-era symphonic works with modern takes on rhythm and harmony.  The remarkable third movement, over twice as long as the preceding two, is a wonderful ride through a sweeping array of themes and emotional content, admirably perfomed by the orchestra.

There is an interesting and notable contrast with the 22-minute "Three Poems by Henri Michaux," which premiered in 1963, obviously beginning with the use of a chorale.  But, it is also the use of poetry from a French surrealist that marks a shift in Lutoslawski's sonic palette.  The composer is quoted in the liners as stating that Michaux's work allowed the composer "to remain absolutely natural as a musician, while following the form of his poetry, because of its formal and rhythmic variety."  It was also noted in the liners that Lutoslawski "set out to find verses that in some way would be near" the form of the composition he already had in mind.  To the composer, "the word is united with the music, that they form a fusion" and that "music adds to the word."

The poetry is from three works, "Thoughts," which is rooted in doubt and uncertainty (thoughts wonderfully swimming / who glide in us, between us, far from us / far from enlightening us, far from understanding); "The Great Contest," with its visceral language, (He seizes him and throws him down on the ground / He drags him and assaults him / He pracks him and mauls him and makes him squeal / He trashes him and mashes him) and consonant sonic barrage and harshly articulated vocalizing; and "Rest in Misfortune," which looks inward as the poet implores Misfortune to "sit down, rest, let us rest a little, you and I, rest, you find me, you try me, you prove me it.  I am your downfall."

The work of such composers as Stockhausen and Xenakis come to mind when hearing much of "Three Poems" though only in the broadest sense and with "The Great Contest" especially.  "Rest in Misfortune" is calm, contemplative and a world away from its predecessor.

"Mi-Parti" from 1976 is a single movement orchestral piece based on Lutoslawski's finding a definition of the title as "composed of two equal but unlike parts," though the "partition" is not binary, but involves several "threads" in which "each of them develops while interfering one with the other and represent an action."  Each starts slowly and builts to a heightened state of activity, with the composer highlighting "color rather in spite of myself" as he used that ambiguous word to try to depict what happens acoustically in the music with respect to "warm" and "cold" elements that swirl in a polyphony of symphonic sound.  The building of activity, dynamic tempo changes and interesting instrumentation to create those "colors" make this a compelling and exciting work.

The "Overture for Strings" is a short 5-minute piece from 1949 that also has shades of Bartok and the writer of the notes, Andrzej Chlopecki, uses the interesting phrase that "the composer wanted to create a super-complete symphonic aphorism" in which only those elements needed are used and that the aphoristic concept is marked by "extreme economy" but without being "ascetic."  With a trio of themes that are very different in technical approach, this overture says a great deal, but no more than necessary, in a relatively short period of time.

One of the most interesting of "modern" composers, Lutoslawski's work is experimental, but highly accessible and this disc shows a range of pieces that distinctly represents his striking output.

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