INKPOT#52 CLASSICAL MUSIC REVIEWS: Music of Busoni, Lutoslawski & Szymanowski (VoxBox)
FERRUCCIO BUSONI (1866-1924)
Konzertstück in D major for Piano & Orchestra, op.31a
Divertimento For Flute & Orchestra, op.52
Rondo Arlecchinesco for Orchestra with Tenor, op.46
Concertino for Clarinet & Small Orchestra, op.48
Berlin Symphony Orchestra conducted by C.A. Bunte
KAROL SZYMANOWSKI (1882-1937)
Violin Sonata in D major, op.9
Fredell Lack (violin) Albert Hirsh (piano)
Violin Concerto No.2, Op.61
Fredell Lack (violin) Berlin Symphony Orchestra conducted by Siegfried Kohler
WITOLD LUTOSLAWSKI (1913-1994)
Mala Suita (Little Suite)
Die Strohkette for Soprano, Mezzo-Soprano, Flute, Oboe, 2 Clarinets & Bassoon
5 Dance Preludes for Clarinet, Strings, Harp, Piano & Percussion
Overture for String Orchestra
Trauermusik for String Orchestra*
Berlin Symphony Orchestra/Hamburg Symphony Orchestra* conducted by Arthur Gruber
2 discs [70’35” + 70’25”]
by Daniel Chua
I stumbled upon this 2-CD box in Tower last December. I bought it because it was dirt-cheap and it contained music unfamiliar to me composed by composers I admire. It turned out to be a really great buy though it is quite a motley collection. I suppose there is a good reason to package Lutoslawski and Szymanowski together. They are both Poles. How Busoni belongs in their company is harder to see. Maybe it was because they were roughly contemporary. Whatever the reason, the two CDs contained more than 140 minutes of great music wonderfully recorded.
The most substantial and familiar work in this collection is Szymanowskis (below right) Violin Concerto No.2. It is cast in a single movement with a long and extremely difficult cadenza roughly at mid-point. The orchestration calls for a large array of forces, including a piano. There is a shared vocabulary with other 20th century violin concertos, particularly Bartoks second concerto and Prokofievs D major.
I have on hand another version by the Austrian violinist Thomas Zehetmair (a one time winner of the International Mozart Competition) on EMI (5 55607-2) conducted by Simon Rattle. This latter version was the winner of the Gramophone prize in the Concerto category in 1997. The Zehetmair was clearly intended to be a sonic winner by EMI. It was recorded in the highly touted Symphony Hall in Birmingham by the ace recording team of David R. Murray and Mike Clements using what EMI claimed to be state-of-the-art technology.
One would expect this full price CD to sound better than the Vox version. The result was however quite the reverse. The bass on this CD was soft, so soft that the drums could hardly be heard. There was a nice bloom in the violin sound but the overall image was ill-focused and mired in mud. The soloists performance was technically accomplished but maybe because of the sound, sounded detached and prosaic to these ears.
The Vox version, played by Fredell Lack is everything that the EMI version was not. It too sounds slightly too reverberant and slightly wanting in focus. However, the full frequency spectrum is quite nicely captured. The performance is emotionally charged and passionate. The violin tone is sweet and involving. The musicians commitment and belief in this music are clearly audible. Overall, the much cheaper and older version handily trounced this new and highly praised version.
The other more substantial work is Szymanowskis Violin Sonata, op.9, composed when the composer was 22 years old. The influence of Brahms and Franck is apparent and the work is laid out in orthodox three movements. The soloist here is the aforesaid Fredell Lack.
Here again, I have another favourably-reviewed (by Penguin Guide) version to compare it with. This is the version featuring Lydia Mordkovitch on Chandos (CHAN 8747). Here the honour is more evenly divided. Mordkovitch was the one with the better technique, playing with refinement and nice nuances. However, Fredell Lack (I have never heard of her until I bought this CD) did not lag too far behind. In fact, her passion for this music shines through. This is very restless music, full of yearning and restlessness and Lack gives a totally committed performance. In fact, Mordkovitch sounds less spontaneous by comparison. In sonic terms however, matters are clear-cut. On Vox, the piano and violin occupy their own space on the soundstage. The violin is clearly forward of the piano and both are rendered truthfully. On the Chandos, the violin and piano overlap each other. There is too much reverberation and the violin sounds gruff and the piano boomy. Again, I have to give my vote to Vox.
The Italian composer, conductor and virtuoso pianist Ferruccio Busoni (left) worked mainly in Berlin. He was Sibelius’ piano teacher and his most advanced compositions influenced the likes of Webern, Bartok and Messiaen. The works featured here were totally unfamiliar to me. They are all concertante works and the most substantial of which is the Konzertstück. It can easily pass off as a piano concerto by Lizst, so similar are they in freedom of form and difficult keyboard passages.
Left: Portrait of Ferruccio Busoni (1916) by Umberto Boccioni.
You are unlikely ever to hear the Rondo Arlecchinesco being performed ‘live’ because it requires a tenor soloist just before the end. It would be difficult to get a tenor for about one minutes work intoning a few simple notes for a concert performance. The other two works featuring flute and clarinet soloists respectively ought to be better known as they are attractive and there are not many such pieces in the repertoire of these instruments.
Restrained by officials to compose music based on folk song, Witold Lutoslawski (right) later developed his own 12-tone technique that is completely different from Schoenberg’s (which he disliked). The works here are just as rare as Busoni’s. Most of them are rather slight and show an abundance of the aforementioned folk elements. However, they are approachable and great fun to listen to.
The most substantial piece of the lot is the Trauermusik for strings. According to the very well-written notes, this was one of the first Polish musical compositions to have been written using the 12-tone technique. This work pointed the way for newer developments, through its use of juxtaposed “live” and recorded string sounds that are distorted, stratified, and overlapping in ways that reveal a break with any strict kind of serialism. Lutoslawski is famous for his aleatory technique – such music relies on chance elements which cannot be predicted before performance. This piece is particularly well recorded. One can clearly hear the “live” portion, which is placed a little forward of the taped portion. The resulting texture, another Lutoslawski trademark, is absolutely fascinating. The other works are similarly well recorded and in sonic terms, they are the gems of this box.
For the price of a mid-price CD, one gets two well-filled, well-recorded, well-performed CDs of rare repertoire. I cannot conceive of a better bargain. I only hope that the major labels will take note of the sound that these analogue transfers produce and try to better it. Right now, they are still quite a long way from merely equaling it.
If you are in Singapore, this disc is available at or can be ordered from Tower (Pacific Plaza & Suntec City) and can be found on the Vox Box rack.
Daniel Chua delights in finding cheap and good CDs which others fail to spot.