Monday, July 17, 2017

Witold Lutosławski - Orchestral Works Vol. 3 (Paul Watkins; Edward Gardner)


Composer: Witold Lutosławski
  • (01-04) Mała suita (Little Suite)
  • (05-08) Concerto for Cello and Orchestra
  • (09) Grave (Metamorphoses for Cello and String Orchestra)
  • (10-11) Symphony No. 2

Paul Watkins, cello (5-9)
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Edward Gardner, conductor

Date: 2012
Label: Chandos



This programme begins with the superb Mała Suite or Little Suite, which manages to integrate folk music and original sonorities into a work which was created under the rules of Communist directives on acceptable style and content. There are shades of Prokofiev and Stravinsky, but also a clear sense of the kind of Polish lyrical heartland which you can also hear in Panufnik’s earlier work, some of the themes also foreshadowing works such as the Concerto for Orchestra.

Chandos’s house cello soloist of the day Paul Watkins is excellent in the Cello Concerto, the drama of the extended opening solo and its interruption with imperious and irritable trumpets sounding more than ever like the prologue to an opera without words. The spatial subtleties in the goings on amongst the sections of the orchestra make the SACD element in this recording a genuinely fascinating experience, the silence sculpted with moments of darting light and colour. The transparency of Lutoslawski’s orchestration might have given this work a feeling of fragility and transience, but the opposite is true. The Cello Concerto exerts a powerful grip on the imagination, and with a palpable feeling of anticipation and the composer’s highly selective dosage of release and reward this is one of those pieces which can change your entire view about what music can do. Such a fertile performance and recording as this makes for compelling and at times truly shocking listening.

After this unnerving experience we are brought back only partially to the style of Lutoslawski’s earlier work in the version of Grave for cello with string orchestra. This is later piece from 1981/82, but is relatively conservative in its rhythms and techniques, a few momentary shooting glissandi being one of the familiar fingerprints. The title would seem to suggest something more lugubrious than the lively work which in fact unfolds.

The Symphony No. 2 was written some years after the Concerto for Orchestra, and is closer to the Livre pour orchestre in its exploration of timbres and atmospheres. The two movements are titled Hésitant and Direct, the former combining and dividing various textures and sonorities, the latter growing more integrated and organic shapes, glued differently through the significantly greater use of strings and with waves of pulsing and dramatic interjection. This second movement was the first to be completed, and its magnificent sonic landscapes are the place to try if you are seeking some convincing fragments. The development of the first four minutes or so is one of Lutoslawski’s truly glorious passages, and if your jaw refuses to drop then you’d better get a check-up for tetanus.

Comparisons with alternative recordings have to be made, and I invariably finding myself gravitating towards my former reference of Antoni Wit on the Naxos label. His Little Suite and the Symphony No. 2 both appear on Naxos 8.553169 and both in very good performances from the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra. The Chandos disc manages to deliver more instrumental detail while at the same time heightening the atmospheres in the symphony, the Polish trumpet players also hamming things up distractingly here and there on the Naxos disc. I would put Gardner’s performance about level pegging with that of Jacek Kaspszyk on the excellent Opera Omnia series (see review), the SACD recording perhaps tipping the balance in Gardner’s favour, but not by much.

The Cello Concerto has quite a few competitors, the Naxos version on 8.553625 again having plenty going for it, but in no way as scary as Gardner’s recording, the more generalised orchestral sound putting a kind of aural safety net between us and Lutoslawski’s potent score. Antoni Wit also recorded this piece for the Polish DUX label, and this Warsaw Philharmonic performance/recording is a bit more vibrant and passionate. With my ideas about the Cello Concerto completely transfixed by Paul Watkins and the BBC Symphony Orchestra however, I feel pretty secure in being able to put forward this Chandos version against and above all others.

Collectors of this series will already have this volume firmly in their sights, and no-one need hesitate in snapping it up. Paul Watkins fans familiar with his more mainstream repertoire might hesitate, but that would be a shame. If you fancy treating your mind to some seriously stimulating sounds this is a splendid journey on which to embark.

-- Dominy ClementsMusicWeb International

More reviews:


Witold Lutosławski (25 January 1913 – 7 February 1994) was a Polish composer and orchestral conductor. He was one of the major European composers of the 20th century, and one of the preeminent Polish musicians during his last three decades. He earned many international awards and prizes. His compositions (of which he was a notable conductor) include four symphonies, a Concerto for Orchestra, a string quartet, instrumental works, concertos, and orchestral song cycles. Lutosławski's music incorporates his own methods of building harmonies and the use of aleatoric processes.


Paul Watkins (born 1970) is a Welsh classical cellist and conductor. Watkins studied cello with William Pleeth, Melissa Phelps and Johannes Goritzki. From 1990 to 1997, he was principal cellist of the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Watkins joined the Emerson String Quartet in the 2013-14 season, replacing the departing cellist David Finckel. He was previously a cellist with the Nash Ensemble. As a conductor, Watkins has been music director of the English Chamber Orchestra since 2009, and has recorded for the Warner Classics label. Watkins plays on a cello made by Domenico Montagnana and Matteo Goffriller, c 1730.


Edward Gardner (born 22 November 1974 in Gloucester) is an English conductor. He attended University of Cambridge as a music student, and was a choral scholar in King's College Choir. He also studied at the Royal Academy of Music, where his teachers included Colin Metters. He was music director of English National Opera (2006-2015), principal guest conductor of  the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (2011-2016). He is currently principal conductor of the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra. Gardner has conducted several recordings for EMI Classics and Chandos. Records.


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