Aside from being an expertly recorded collection of imaginative and engrossing music, this collection of Polish composer Witold Lutoslawski’s four symphonies, conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen (some of which are re-issues of long-out-of-print recordings, some of which are fresh takes) doubles as an extended musical essay on the dissolution of the symphony from the pen of one of the century’s more important and rangy composers. From the jauntiness of the traditional multi-movement First to the severe and occasionally retrogressive Fourth, these pieces stand as the mightiest cornerstone of the new symphonic repertoire.
Salonen has long been associated with this composer’s work, as the commissioned fanfare “bonus track,” tucked into the end of the set, attests. But it is in the Second Symphony that he cuts deepest, expertly balancing a barbaric yawp of a piece, split in two movements (bearing the poetic subtitles “hesitant” and “direct”) that effectively and achingly straddles the Big Philosophical divide between the “old” and the “new.” Most trying for this complex music is the pacing of it, knowing when to make it roar and when to whisper, because this is music whose beauty rests in its latent explosiveness.
This is by no means to cast shade on his reading of the single-movement Third Symphony, which will probably go forth as the “industry standard” performance. Salonen, leading the always-astonishing Los Angeles Philharmonic is the perfect ear and stick for the job. It is fitting that these discs are released now, days after what would have been Lutoslawski’s 100th birthday. These anniversaries allow for a moment of pause on the importance of the celebrated composer, but they are also excellent marketing pegs, giving companies a compelling reason to steward these kinds of treasure troves.