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22 Dec 2005
LUTOSLAWSKI: Twenty Polish Christmas Carols
Witold Lutosławski (1913-94) composed vocal works throughout his career, and recording collects several pieces that involve female voices. His set of Twenty Polish Christmas Carols for soprano, women’s choir and orchestra is a late composition compiled between 1985 and 1989 and given its premiere in 1990.
It is based on the collection of twenty Christmas carols for voice and piano that Lutosławski arranged in 1946, a time when the politics dictated that the arts create works like this for the people. Only someone as steeped in Polish culture as Lutosławski could approach arrangements of these carols with the aplomb that they deserve and, at the same time, introduce elements that do not make them caricatures. The collection is as reminiscent of some of the folksong settings of Ralph Vaughan Williams, and the appeal of the music resides in the masterful settings that he gave each piece.
While some of the melodies may be familiar, others are more insular in nature. The carol entitled “Hurrying to Bethlehem” The delicate timbres and floating harmonies of “Lullaby, Jesus” is one of the outstanding selections on this recording. Likewise angular melody of “This is our Lord’s birthday” evokes a Slavic idiom that hints at the kind of choral number a composer like Prokofiev have used in one of his cantatas, while Lutosławski’s orchestration suggests Shostakovich’s style. The wind colors used in “Shepherds, can you tell?” is engaging, especially when they occur with the interplay between solo voice and choral writing. The arrangements by Lutosławski make some wonderful Polish carols available to a broader audience.
This masterful combination of the familiar with a modern touch makes the collection attractive not only as a recording, but also for performances during the Christmas season. The performance preserved on this recording is taken from concerts given on 5 December 2001. In fact, the other pieces on the CD were part of another concert, which was given on 15 January 1997) and include Lutsławski’s Lacrimosa for soprano, choir, and orchestra, as well as his Five Songs for female voice the 30 solo instruments.
The Lacrimosa is one of two settings from the Requiem completed in 1937 by Lutosławski, and as a fragment it offers a glimpse at the composer early in his career. The melody given to the soprano is reminiscent of some of the music Ginastera used in his Bachianas Brasilieras. The overt simplicity that Lutosławski uses in this piece is part of its attraction. As much as it is unmistakably modern, the Lacrimosa is also engaging in its clear presentation of the text, and masterful use of solo voice in contrast to choral passages, all of which are supported by a carefully composed accompaniment. It is unfortunate that the other setting from the Requiem was destroyed and that Lutosławski did not pursue the setting of the entire piece. Those unfamiliar with the work will find this performance to be extremely effective.
Another work that deserves further attention is the set of Five Songs to texts by the contemporary poet Kazmimiera Iłłakowicz (1892-1983). The only nominally secular pieces on this CD, the Five Songs are essentially revisions of children’s verses that have a modern slant, and Lutosławski’s music accentuates that aspect of the texts. Composed in 1957, the Five Songs are a product of a time when Lutosławski benefited from the cultural openness that occurred after Stalin’s regime ended. As with the other pieces collected in this recording, the performance is convincing and conveys the spirit of the music well.
This and the other pieces are performed by the Polish Radio Chorus, Kraców, and the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra (Katowice) conducted by Anoni Wit. The soprano for the set of Twenty Polish Christmas Carols and the Lacrimosa is Olga Pasichnyk, with the alto Jadwiga Rappé serving as soloist for the Five Songs. The diction is clear and serves the texts well, but it is unfortunate that the texts and translations are not provided with the recording. With the exception of Lutosławski’s Five Songs, the texts are available at the Naxos website (www.naxos.com/libretti/20carols.htm), the publication of the materials with the CD makes a difference. At the same time it would also be useful at least to have the titles of the pieces and their components in the original language and also in translation. Nevertheless, this recording makes available some fine music and in turn, it shows yet another side of one of the most important Polish composers of the twentieth century.
James L. Zychowicz