Double play

Edward Seckerson and Stephen Johnson compare notes on...; Lutoslawski: Symphony No 2, Piano Concerto, Chantefleurs et Chantefables Paul Crossley, Dawn Upshaw, Esa-Pekka Salonen / Los Angeles Philharmonic (Sony SK 67189)
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If you begin with the Second Symphony of 1966-67 (the earliest work, placed last on the disc), then you're effectively in at the creation. Chaos, carefully (fastidiously) prescribed, is a peculiarly

Lutoslawskian concept. Organised chaos, tissues of sound, ideas too transient to mean very much - yet - jostle for a piece of the first movement. Everything you hear prepares you for something else. It was ever thus with Lutoslawski. A second movement brings coherence to the first, a sense of development, a musical big bang in the offing. And, of course, "chance" (controlled aleatoric writing) plays its part.

Come the Piano Concerto of 1987, Lutoslawski has effectively honed and refined that technique into a natural extension of tempo rubato. Like so much in his music, the present subtly alludes to the past. The idea of writing a piano concerto that wasn't in some shape or form a throw- back to a great bygone tradition would have been inconceivable to him. So, for all its kinetic brilliance (Lutoslawski, the musical sculptor, is in fine fettle here), the Piano Concerto is a work full of extravagant, even "romantic", gestures - big inflections, big shapes - the first emerging from we know not where in a singing refrain over wall-to-wall strings. It's a showy, multi-faceted piece with an absorbing subtext, and Paul Crossley has the measure of its physical and emotional stretch. This programme is a stretch. We might call it "Lutoslawski: the whole picture" - and, as such, it's a good starting place for the uninitiated.

Chantefleurs et Chantefables (1990) was a late work waiting to happen: an open acknowledgement - indeed a celebration - of Lutoslawski's kinship with the French sensibility, not to mention his new-found concern for, and delight in, the horizontal of music: melody. Robert Desnos's surrealist trifles (zoological and botanical fancies, some masquerading as nursery rhymes) plainly appealed to his sense of the capricious.

Dawn Upshaw enjoys the flora and fauna, the naughty but nice and ever so slightly subversive nature of the settings. And Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Los Angeles Philharmonic lavish much care over the composer who entrusted them with his Fourth Symphony. It's a debt of gratitude well-paid throughout an excellent disc. The opening Fanfare for Los Angeles Philharmonic (1993) should be regarded as a pat - well, more of a slap - on the back. ES

Almost everything Witold Lutoslawski wrote is interesting, even if it isn't ultimately convincing. The Second Symphony, completed in 1967, was the first really large-scale work to use "chance" techniques - not improvisation: all the ideas written out, but up to a point players can vary the speed and the length of the repetitions. The results can be entrancing: delicate, intertwining tendrils of sound, subtly shifting, and often surprisingly melodic. Even after this excellent new version, I'm still not sure the Second Symphony works as a large-scale statement - but the quality of the performance is an incentive to keep trying.

When Lutoslawski came to write the Piano Concerto, 20 years later, the technique had matured and enriched. The language is more direct - drama and lyricism more classically opposed. The older Lutoslawski seems to have made his peace with tradition, and yes, the result is a more easily accessible language. Is something missing? Problematical though it may be, there's a kind of zest, a sense of living dangerously in the Second Symphony which the later piece lacks. If you know Lutoslawski's output moderately well, it's hard to avoid a sense that this is largely well- explored territory.

But there is one uncontestable gem on this disc: the song cycle Chantefleurs et Chantefables ("Flower and Fable Songs", 1990) - settings of nine delicate surreal miniatures by the French poet Robert Desnos. Lutoslawski's settings are wonderful: innocent, and ominously knowing at the same time - an almost Ravelian sensibility yet unmistakably a product of the late-20th century. And, unusually for a forward-looking composer of his generation, Lutoslawski writes as though he actually likes the human voice - a gift to soprano Dawn Upshaw, who sings with the refined expression the music calls for. It's a haunting experience; I'd risk recommending the disc for this alone. SJ