La Scena Musicale

Monday, 11 April 2016

Lebrecht Weekly - NDR Symphony Orchestra/Krzysztof Urbanski (Alpha)

4/5 stars

Most composer reputations subside in the generation after their death. It’s as if posterity calls time out while deciding its final judgement.

Witold Lutoslawski is a notable exception to this hiatus rule. Since his death in 1994, performances of his music have become more frequent and his status has risen steadily among both modernists and conservatives. A Pole living under Stalinism, Lutoslawski was adept at facing both ways without sacrificing his creative principles. He wrote works of dangerous aleatory freedom and others of completely conventional form. All bore his unmistakable elegance.

The Concerto for Orchestra, premiered in 1954, was acclaimed by the Communist regime for its proletarian accessibility and by traditional musicians for its roots in Bartok’s famous work. Its only real debt, in fact, was owed to Lutoslawski’s imagination, as instruments of the orchestra play roles in a society in which individuals sometimes connect. The more I hear the Concerto, the more original it sounds – and this recording is among the most vivid I have heard. The blaring brass in the Passacaglia will scare the squirrels off your springtime lawn.

The album pairings are well-chosen. Bookending Lutoslawski’s creative life, the Little Suite of 1949 is a tonally centred yet psychologically disturbing knit of folk tunes, while the fourth symphony is a climactic summary, written post-Communism for the luxurious sound of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and premiered by the composer himself in February 1993. Less easy on the ear than the much-played third symphony, it looks back at a century when composers found ways to dissimulate in order to avoid state control. Concise at 20 minutes and surprisingly playful, it reveals the sanity and humour that went into a life’s achievement. The Hamburg-based NDR symphony orchestra play with high bloom and precision for Krysztof Urbanski, a fast-rising Polish conductor of a new generation.

—Norman Lebrecht

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