Liebreich’s Great Szymanowski & Lutosławski


WP 2019 - 2LUTOSŁAWSKI: Concerto for Orchestra. Livre pour Orchestre. Musique funèbre à la memoire de Béla Bartók. Cello Concerto.+ Symphony No. 4. SZYMANOWSKI: 3 Fragments from Poems of Jan Kasprowicz.* Concert Overture. Symphony No. 2 / *Ewa Podleś, alto; +Gautier Capuçon, cel; Polish National Radio Orch.; Alexander Liebreich, cond / Accentus ACC80498

This lavishly-produced boxed set, which includes three fairly thick fold-over cardboard containers, each containing a CD and a fairly thick booklet with notes in Polish, German, French and English, contrasts and compares the music of the two best Polish composers of the 20th century. The liner notes are written in a fairly generic, conversational style and don’t really explain or explore the contrasts or connections between Szymanowski and Lutosławski; rather, they merely extol the virtues of both composers while explaining how Lutosławski became a part of Katowice, all of which is well and good but doesn’t help us regarding the actual music.

Each CD is actually split between the two composers. The contents of each disc is as follows:

CD 1
Lutosławski: Concerto for Orchestra (1954)
Szymanowski: 3 Fragments from Poems by Jan Kasprowicz (1902)

CD 2
Szymanowski: Symphony No. 2 (1909-10)
Lutosławski: Livre pour Orchestre (1968)
Lutosławski: Musique funèbre à la mémoire de Béla Bartók (1958)

CD 3
Szymanowski: Concert Overture in E (1904-05/1910-13)
Lutosławski: Cello Concerto (1969-70)
Lutosławski: Symphony No. 4 (1988-92)

As you can seem then, it is Lutosławski who receives the lion’s share of the CDs. The only large-scale Szymanowski work included here is his Second Symphony, the other two being relatively smaller works while Lutosławski gets two concerti, a symphony and at least one other large-scale orchestral work (the Livre pour Orchestre) in addition to the relatively smaller Bartók funeral music. Yet I’m happy to have these works in my collection; the only one of these I already had was the Cello Concerto, in a fine performance by soloist Johannes Moser with the Berlin Radio Symphony conducted by Thomas Sondergård, and to be honest, this performance is even better. In fact, I was literally bowled over by the power and emotionally-charged energy of Liebreich’s conducting in work after work and movement after movement. Everything about these performances have the feel of an event about them, thus I was not surprised to discover that they were taped during live performances for Polish Radio.

Listening to Lutosławski’s music, one can hear an even more “Polish” influence in them than in the works of his predecessor, great though he was. Like Bartók, Lutosławski had a knack for using traditional folk melodies or of writing melodic lines that sounded like folk melodies and then transforming them with modern harmonies. Compared to the dodecaphonic school or the abrasive, clashing and often harsh harmonies of his successor, Penderecki, Lutosławski’s music is practically lyrical. Granted, there are some abrasive chords here and there, i.e. in the second movement of his Concerto for Orchestra, but by and large the overall impression is of consonance because he always returns to a tonal or modal home key. Moreover, by using folk-like tunes and particularly folk-like rhythms, his music is actually less impressionistic and more appealing to the general listener, for whom rhythm is the soul of music.

The Concerto for Orchestra, in fact, concludes with a huge Passacaglia that runs longer than the first two movements combined. Lutosławski vacillated between bright colors and soft textures, walking a tightrope between two most dominant trends of the mid-20th century. He was, indeed, the Polish Bartók, thus it made perfect sense that he would dedicate a piece of funeral music to a man he considered his musical guide. With that being said, his own Concerto for Orchestra lacks the immediate popular appeal of Bartók’s, simply because when the music becomes dense it is denser and less easily digested than the music of the Hungarian composer.

But appealing to populist tastes and appealing to me are two different things, and I found all of his music on this set endlessly fascinating. Young composers today who like to fall into the popular style of writing edgy, abrasive music that sounds like a boiler factory exploding would do well to study his scores (as well as those of the sadly-neglected American composer William Schuman). Beneath the sometimes abrasive harmonies, Lutosławski was very strict in his formal structures. He didn’t like or want his music to end up being a series of cheap “effects” over real musical substance, thus he always tied form to sound, as Stravinsky did. Indeed, one can compare his orchestral works on this set to some of the music of Stravinsky, except that he was more emotionally effusive than the great Russian composer.

Considering the year of its performance (2014) and the number of years she has spent singing, Ewa Podleś’ voice is in remarkably good shape for Szymanowski’s 3 Fragments from Poems by Jan Kasparowicz. I can only ascribe this to the fact that, because she is an undisputedly great singer yet chooses her operatic and concert dates very carefully, Podleś does not fly all over the world like a chicken with her head cut off as her peers do. Listening to her sing here is like listening to Schumann-Heink or Irina Arkhipova in their sixties, singing with still-firm and well-controlled voices. The comparison is apt in yet another sense, since all three contraltos are as famous for their interpretive skills as for their voices. A former friend of mine, the late Dr. Louis A. Leslie—co-founder of the Gregg Shorthand Method and successor to John Gregg when he died—had seen and heard Schumann-Heink at age 71 sing Erda in Das Rheingold at the Metropolitan Opera, and was utterly amazed by the power, beauty and drama of her voice. I could echo those sentiments while listening here to the 62-year-old Podleś. May she go on as long as Ernestine and Irina did! Being early pieces by Szymanowski, the 3 Fragments are more tonal and less amorphous in form than his later music, though still showing us the Szymanowski to come, particularly in his often opaque orchestral scoring which owed much to Debussy, Duparc and late Wagner.

I was particularly fascinated by Liebreich’s performance of Szymanowski’s second symphony, as it was considerably different from that of Antoni Wit with the Warsaw Philharmonic. The German-born Liebreich takes a more tightly structured view of this music where Wit is more impressionistic. Both approaches are valid, however, particularly since this is still in the composer’s earlier style, before he became imbued by the music of Scriabin. And once again, Liebreich’s conducting is emotionally alive; it gets under your skin and moves you. I’m willing to bet that he has more than a cursory knowledge of how Toscanini conducted; the only thing he lacks is the ultra-clarity of texture that the Italian produced. Otherwise, you hear the same “long view” of the works he performs, developed logically from first note to last, the same excellent top-to-bottom orchestral balance in every note and phrase, the same consistent forward movement and, as already mentioned, the same emotional energy without becoming sentimental. For an example of what I mean, compare Toscanini’s performance of the Sibelius Fourth Symphony to the one by Sir Thomas Beecham or any of his performances of Debussy’s La Mer (the late NBC recording being the best) to those of such French conductors as Désiré-Émile Engelbrecht. Without sacrificing a good legato, Toscanini is consistently more energized, more personally invested in the music-making process than the others, and this is how I feel when listening to Liebreich.

Compared to the Szymanowski symphony, Lutosławski’s late (1968) Livre pour orchestre almost sounds like something from outer space. Here, the structural clarity one heard in the Concerto for Orchestra is bent and blurred; careful listening reveals the structure underneath, but it requires greater concentration to detect. Falling chromatics, diminished chords and whole-tone scales also find their way into this music. Indeed, there are moments here where Lutosławski sounds prescient of early Leif Segerstam or, perhaps, somewhat influenced by George Crumb. The earlier Marcia funèbre for Bartók is in his earlier, Bartók-influenced style, and here, in fact, Lutosławski’s music does bear a strong resemblance to the earlier composer’s Concerto for Orchestra.

Interestingly, Szymanowski’s Concert Overture sounds much like one of the large orchestral tone poems of Richard Strauss—or perhaps that’s because Liebreich is conducting it, as Antoni Wit’s performance is less taut and more amorphic in contour. Yet I couldn’t get away from the similarities, not only in his use of a very large orchestra but also in his use of a few of Strauss’ trademark sounds, i.e. the soft, high violins , the swooping horns and the manner in which he dropped from the upper stratosphere to suddenly “build up” his orchestral sound from the basses and cellos, slowly working his way through low trumpets and winds as the violins again start soaring overhead…and even spot violin solos. I daresay that, if played for a classical lover with little or no knowledge of Szymanowski without saying who the composer is, many will guess Strauss without being able to pinpoint the name of the work. And once again, the conducting is simply exuberant.

By contrast, Lutosławski’s Cello Concerto almost sounds like something from another planet: a handful of soft, low strings introduce it, and when the solo cello enters he is playing strange figures, really little more than gestures, some of the notes purposely distorted. Eventually we hear some wacky, atonal trumpet fanfares, almost as a distraction, before returning to the solo cello, now playing a bit more of a melodic line while soft clarinets, basses and percussion rumble in the background. This is a piece that takes all of Liebreich’s conducting skills to pull together due to its odd juxtaposition of what sound like disparate sections, yet he manages to do a pretty good job of it. In places, Lutosławski’s use of sirens and raucous percussion and brass almost reminds you of George Antheil.

The late Symphony No. 4 is, oddly enough, both more modern and more tightly structured than the Cello Concerto, although the composer’s use of several spot solos almost make it sound like a concerto grosso or another concerto for orchestra. Here, too, the structure is tighter and clearer, which plays into Liebreich’s skilled hands very well.

No two ways about it, this set is one of the sleepers of the year. Very highly recommended!

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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