Esa-Pekka Salonen’s affection for the modern composer Witold Lutosławski has long been evident. Back in the days when Salonen was on the Sony Classical roster, the then-very-young leader of the Los Angeles Philharmonic devoted two different albums to the Polish master’s works for orchestra. In Salonen’s initial release – of the third and fourth Symphonies (plus a song cycle) – the conductor and composer can even be seen laughing it up on the cover, as if publicly declaring their mutual love.
Curiously, though, for all this steady outpouring of testimonials, Salonen fell one recording short of completing his Lutosławski symphonies cycle. Even more curiously, the conductor has now been given leave by his current label (Deutsche Grammophon) to finish the cycle, for Sony. And so this re-release package of Salonen’s long-heralded readings of the second, third and fourth Lutosławski symphonies is made complete with a brand-spanking-new live rendering of the composer’s first effort in the piece, recorded all the way back in December 2012 at Walt Disney Concert Hall.
Lutosławski's First Symphony, begun during the ravages of World War II and only completed in 1947, is quite unlike the later works. It’s full of Stravinsky-esque motivic pileups and neoclassical-informed moments of bouncy fanfare. Though a four-movement work in a somewhat traditional vein, some of Lutosławski later-codified structural innovations – like the psych-out climax followed by a brief, quiet coda – are already in tip-top working order here. But it lacks some of the things that we think of when we think of Lutosławski, such as his aleatoric moments, or the mercurial darkness he often created by toggling between sparse chamber moments and cluster-chord tutti blarings. As a result, it's been less recorded by orchestras and conductors.
In a backdoor way, it’s nice that it took Salonen this long to get around to it; his long-term marinating in the Lutosławski juices makes his version of this under-heard symphony easily the best currently available. The opening moments of the “Allegro Giusto” reveal how Salonen and the Los Angeles Philharmonic are more detailed (particularly in the string section) than the composer’s own recording for EMI. And yet this new recording also equals the Lutosławski-conducted version for climactic power (which, incidentally, is the only thing missing from Antoni Wit’s otherwise rigorous version for his own cycle on the Naxos label).
Much has already been written about the older recordings being repackaged here. But since the Second Symphony – heretofore Salonen’s best showing in Lutosławski – has gone in and out of print over the years, it’s an especially welcome reissue item. As for the other pieces, the Fourth Symphony has had much more attention over the years (including by Barenboim and, again, Lutosławski himself), while a definitive recording of the fourth has proved elusive. A turn back to Romanticism is evident in Lutosławski's writing in the final work. And even when the loudness comes, it’s of a different quality than in the other symphonic essays.
Salonen’s version from the '90s still stands up well against recent strong efforts by Edward Gardner and the BBC Symphony Orchestra. While that ongoing Gardner cycle and Wit’s both have strong moments, they’re also much bigger sets, as they rope in other, sometimes lesser, orchestral works with the symphonies. For consistency of both instrumental clarity and overall excitement, this long-in-the-completion Salonen cycle of the symphonies and just the symphonies is now the most efficient (and cost-effective) way to get to know that justly worthy Lutosławski catalog.
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