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A 20th Century master
on 11 December 2007
Shostakovich referred to Lutoslawski as "The Master". He recognised that Lutoslawski was writing under similar political constraints as himself, and yet was managing to produce works of the highest creative integrity, but with an instant, vital immediacy that found favour with both the censors and the public. A modernist with deep classical roots, and with an exquisite good taste. In fact, much the same agenda as Shostakovich.
Indeed, Lutoslawski had a life as full of drama as Shostakovich, Possibly more so, living through five distinct waves of invasion of his Polish homeland. He lost many of his close relatives to war and to the Russian revolution. He was also a lucky survivor of the Warsaw uprising of 45. Despite all this tragedy, which he was not much disposed to discuss, unlike Shostakovich, you would be hard pressed to identify evidence of these tribulations in his music. Somehow, it seems that his essentially cheerful and humane spirit was never broken by these dreadful traumas. In fact the key characteristics of his mature works are transcendant awe and mystery.
The extraordinary Musique Funebre or Funeral Music for Strings (1958), which is featured on this disc, marks the point in Lutoslawski's career when he finally committed completely to serialism, but very much on his own terms. His music prior to this work was relatively straightforward and tonal in character. Much of it was based on folk themes, typically lively and warm, and often involving bright, colourful ornamentation. However the Musique Funebre marks the point of departure into a totally new realm of extraordinary orchestral colour and rhythmic patterns, that defined a language entirely unique to him, and which he was to explore for the rest of his life. His subsequent music is full of brilliant counterpoint, strange pungent harmonies, thrilling virtuoso passages and intricate, compelling rhythms. The boldness of his exploration is somewhat analogous to that of Ligeti, but the territory is as individual to himself as Ligeti's was to him.
The Musique Funebre is a piece that should be more widely known, as it has a gravity and pathos akin to that of the (in)famous Barber Adagio. All the remaining works on this disc are post Musique Funebre, which makes it a cracker in the series. Having said that, if you buy this disc and you like it, then you might as well commit to buying the other six in the series, because they all include extraordinary music. Several of the discs are at least as good as this one, arguably better, and all of them contain nothing that is not worth hearing.
In my opinion Lutoslawski is as worthy of renown in the 20th Century pantheon as Messiaen, Stravinsky and the like. He broke the boundaries of his time into a completely individual domain of transcendent freedom. Naxos does a great service to culture by putting this marvellous music, by a composer of genius and humanity, back into the public domain. All the recordings are outstanding, as are the performances, the musicians clearly relishing their task throughout.