Lutosławski: Symphonies Nos. 1 & 4; Jeux vénitiens (SACD)

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Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, Hannu Lintu

Witold Lutosławski (1913-1994) is one of 20th Century’s greatest composers. He is also a remarkable symphonist. The three works on the present disc performed by the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra and conducted by Hannu Lintu, represent three important stages in Lutosławski’s career: his 1st Symphony, one of his earliest significant works; Jeux vénitiens was the first work in his best-known stylistic phase; and his 4th Symphony remained his last extensive work.

Lutosławski began his First Symphony in difficult times, during the Nazi occupation of Poland. At the time, he was making a living playing piano duos with composer colleague Andrzej Panufnik in the cafés of Warsaw. Lutosławski made a start on the Symphony in 1941, but it was not until 1947 that he completed it. It is firmly rooted in Neo-Classicism but has none of the irony or stylisation commonly associated with that style. Also, it makes no use of folk music elements, which frequently appear in many of Lutosławski’s post-war works. The work has an affinity with Bartók, Stravinsky and Prokofiev, and Lutosławski himself mentioned Albert Roussel as one of his early influences. The sombre ethos and intense dramaturgy of the work have often been taken to reflect the worldwide conflict that was raging at the time of its genesis. Lutosławski himself, however, rejected the connection; he emphasised that his music was absolute music that, as far as he was concerned, was independent of any direct links to the external world.

Inspired by John Cage, the composer began to develop a new technique of his own. The resulting ‘controlled aleatorism’ was first put into practice in the chamber orchestra work Jeux vénitiens (1960–1961). The title ofJeux vénitiens alludes to the fact that the work was meant to be premiered at the Venice Biennale. In the end, only three movements were performed there in April 1961, and the final four-movement version of the work was premiered in Warsaw in September in the same year. Secondarily, the title alludes to the game-like nature of its aleatoric writing. Each of the four movements of Jeux vénitiens has a definite character of its own. Taken together, they constitute a “psychological approach” to musical form that was favoured by Lutosławski’s composition teacher Witold Maliszewski. According to his terminology, the structure of a work consisted of introductory, narrative, transitional and concluding sections.

The Fourth Symphony is a product of Lutosławski’s late period at its most refined, characterised by a more nuanced and translucent harmonic approach than before, greater rhythmic clarity, a more straightforward approach and an expanded role for expressive melodic writing. These features stemmed in part from the fact that the importance of aleatoric sections was decreasing. In the Fourth Symphony, aleatoric counterpoint only accounts for about one fifth of the duration of the work. In his Third Symphony, Lutosławski had created one of his most profound and many faceted works. By comparison, the Fourth was more restrained and serene; the composer himself said as much by noting that “my Fourth after my Third is a little bit like Beethoven’s Fourth after Eroica”. Written in 1988–92, it also remained his last extensive work; he conducted its premiere in Los Angeles in February 1993, one year before his death.

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1-4. Symphony No. 1 (1947)
5-8. Jeux vénitiens (1961)
9. Symphony No. 4 (1992)

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The Classical Music Collector:

It is remarkable to think that all three works on this CD are by the same composer. The two symphonies recorded here bookend Lutoslawski’s career; the first, from his 30s, owing much to Stravinsky and Roussel, was written during the Nazi occupation, is full of big, bounding tunes, and has a certain ironic flavour. The fourth, written in his last years, is a statement of Mahlerian gravity, with faint hints of Britten, and draws his symphonic cycle to a magisterial close. In between these two symphonies Lintu and his Finnish Radio Symphony give us a work from his venturing middle period, the remarkable Jeux Venitiens, which introduced his famous ‘aleatoricism’—shocking then, but barely controversial today. This CD is very well designed as a portrait of one of the major composers of the previous century, covering his entire creative range, and the performances are radiant.

- Chris Dench