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Sunday, July 16, 2017

Witold Lutosławski - Twenty Polish Christmas Carols; etc. (Antoni Wit)


Composer: Witold Lutosławski
  • (01-20) Twenty Polish Christmas Carols
  • (21) Lacrimosa
  • (22-26) Five Songs after poems by Kazimiera Iłłakowicz

Olga Pasichnyk, soprano (1-21)
Jadwiga Rappé, alto (22-26)
Polish Radio Chorus, Kraków (1-21)
Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra
Antoni Wit, conductor

Date: 2005
Label: Naxos




Originally appearing as pieces for soprano and piano in 1946, Lutoslawski’s 20 Polish Christmas Carols were re-worked by the composer 40 years later and eventually the complete set was scored for soprano, female choir, and orchestra. The texts and tunes came from several indigenous 19th-century collections, and were performed both in an English translation and (as here) in the original Polish. Let’s get right to the point: These are some of the most beautiful creations for voices and orchestra in the repertoire, and if you haven’t heard them, you must. You’ll be surprised at how perfectly these unusual settings capture the mystery, the elation, the solemnity of the birth in Bethlehem, the folksy rejoicing of the shepherds, the ethereal atmosphere surrounding the manger and sleeping child, and the reflective, meditative mood of the whole miraculous event.

While there are plenty of “tunes” to savor, these are anything but simple harmonizations–or even what we’d call “arrangements”–of songs. The tunes are there–listen to “In a manger” or “Jesus there is lying”, for example–but they are usually couched in the most gorgeous, un-carol-like harmonizations and instrumentation, given new and sophisticated rhythmic treatments that all together turn these carols into enthralling concert pieces. The brief “Just after midnight”, with its catchy, irregular rhythm, and “Our Lovely Lady”, with its touchingly plaintive melody, are two of the more enchanting numbers. In addition, Lutoslawski uses the women’s voices in variations of register, textures, and voicing to make each carol different yet part of a larger sonic and dramatic picture.

Although this isn’t a theatrical piece or even a true “song-cycle”, Lutoslawski uses expressive, free melodic material and evocative orchestrations in such a variety of colors and moods that even without knowing the language, we are transported to a particular place and dramatic moment–and in this sense, the music often is closer to what we’d find in an operatic scene than in a set of self-contained choral pieces, exemplified in such settings as “Hey, hey lovely Lady Mary”, “Hey la, Hey la, shepherds there you are”, “God is born”, and “What to do with this child?”, the first two recalling the romanticism of Dvorák, the latter two as impressionistic as anything Debussy created. The fact is, virtually every one of these carols is a gem that will encourage many repeat listenings.

The other two works on the disc are much different yet are equally compelling. The three-and-one-half-minute Lacrimosa for soprano, mixed choir, and orchestra is a lovely, tender prayer for mercy (from the Requiem sequence), written in 1937, beautifully sung by Olga Pasichnyk, while the set of Five Songs for female voice and 30 solo instruments (from 1957) is nothing short of a masterpiece, a brilliantly conceived realization of poems (Children’s Rhymes) from 20th-century Lithuanian poet Kazimiera Illakowicz. Although tonally somewhat ambiguous, the vocal lines and continuously fascinating instrumental scoring go together so well that we really don’t notice the specifics of style or structural elements. The song “Winter” is a masterpiece within a masterpiece, showing what the coarsely atonal styles of dozens of early-to-mid-20th century composers could have been like if they’d had some warm blood in their veins or had allowed their music the slightest shred of human emotion.

The performers here are absolutely first rate. I’m especially happy that the two soloists are not only technically solid but have such rich, warm, expressive voices–not a hint of throatiness or of excessive vibrato; and the choir, particularly the women, makes such a lovely sound that you just want to hear more. The orchestra, and its conductor Antoni Wit, give exemplary performances–and there’s nothing left to say except don’t let this season pass without hearing this disc. Who knows why these pieces are not performed everywhere, all the time. But they should be–and this recording should be at the top of the list of best Christmas discs of 2005. [11/17/2005]

-- David Vernier, ClassicsToday

More reviews:
MusicWeb International  BARGAIN OF THE MONTH


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.


Antoni Wit (born February 7, 1944 in Kraków) is a Polish conductor. He studied conducting under Henryk Czyż and composition under Krzysztof Penderecki at the Kraków's Academy of Music. Wit went on to study in Paris under Nadia Boulanger. He has recorded over 90 albums, most of them for the Naxos label, and many of them with the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra in Katowice, of which he managed and was artistic director from 1983 to 2000. Since year 2002 he has been music director of the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra. Wit specializes in the works of Polish composers such as Henryk Gorecki, Witold Lutosławski, Karol Szymanowski and Krzysztof Penderecki.


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