Ancestor Worship

This is a big year for multiples of 100 in classical music: the 200th birthdays of Wagner and Verdi, the centennial of Benjamin Britten. Easily lost in all this is the centennial of Witold Lutoslawski, born on this date. When I talk to people ‘inside’ music — other composers, musicians, publicists and presenters — there’s always the nodding, satisfied acknowledgement of Lutoslawski’s greatness, and an accompanying wistful expression over how infrequently his music is performed. It’s both a shame and a puzzle, because his music is truly great, arguably more important than the three more famous names, and also attractive and compelling to all sorts of ears.

Lutoslawski did what no one else in the twentieth century did, or even seriously attempted, he reconciled the extremes of experimentation from Cage with the classical tradition, producing music that is darkly colorful, intellectually and emotionally alluring and mysterious, and structurally exciting. He maintained the drama and expressive color of his beloved Chopin and Bartók while opening up the door to unpredictability, all while maintaining control of his materials, like the best before him. The YouTube videos give you a great idea of his journey. He was also as gracious a man as you will ever find and he left a deep personal impression on me when I met him in my first year of grad school. Take a look at this documentary excerpt:

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His death is perhaps too recent for the kind of celebration/revision/marketing opportunities that amount to a festival of concerts and boxed sets. And all of his music is available on recordings, most of them very fine. Lutoslawski conducted many performances himself and had advocates in two exceptional conductors, Esa-Pekka Salonen and Antoni Wit. Naxos has a large series of recordings of his music, while Sony had just collected Salonen’s recordings of Lutoslawski’s great symphonies. There’s also a new and ongoing series of recordings conducted by Edward Gardner on the Chandos labels, and these have been great so far. I had always preferred Salonen, and in terms of quality and value the reissue is the best first place to start with this music, but Gardner’s series is looking to be awesome, the best there is.

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