Lutoslawski and Bach from Los Angeles

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Richard S. Ginell - From Out of the The WestBy Richard S. Ginell: From Out of the West
Witold Lutoslawski in 1993, during his last visit to Los Angeles.(c) Betty Freeman, courtesy of the Polish Music Center

Esa-Pekka Salonen’s set of the four Lutoslawski symphonies with the Los Angeles Philharmonic – now out at last in the U.S.  –  stands as one of the longest-gestating recorded cycles in the catalogue, spanning several technologies.  To give you some perspective, when the cycle began with the Symphony No. 3 in 1984, a public Internet was still a pipe dream, Lutoslawski was still alive, the Fourth Symphony had yet to be written, Salonen had just made his North American debut with the Third, and the label that released it on an LP was still known as CBS Masterworks. When the cycle was finally completed last December with the Symphony No. 1, Salonen had left the Phil three years before after 17 seasons at the helm, the Lutoslawski centennial was looming, and Sony Classical released the whole set as a download first in January before finally putting it out on two CDs in March. What a difference 28 years can make.

As if to prove that the long wait was worth it, the highlight of this set is the new performance of the neo-classical-flavored Symphony No. 1, which is every bit as alive, crackling, and stunningly played as I recall from the live performance.  Moreover, Sony’s engineers have captured it in razor-sharp detail and power, with plenty of reverberation.  It makes you wish that Salonen and the current Philharmonic had re-recorded the rest of the cycle in Disney Hall – especially when compared with the airless sound of the Symphony No. 3 in the Chandler Pavilion some 28 years before.  As such, this album is the only complete set of the symphonies that you can get in one package – and at the two-for-one price, variable sonics and all, it is a great way to experience the chronological evolution of a major composer in one fell swoop.

The Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra was once a prolific recording orchestra under Gerard Schwarz in the 1980s, but after Schwarz took his busy recording agenda with him to the Seattle Symphony, the LACO’s output shrank to virtually nothing.  Though Jeffrey Kahane has been maintaining the ensemble’s high standards for 16 seasons now, the world by and large doesn’t know it; only two recordings backing up violinist Hilary Hahn and counter-tenor Brian Asawa, plus a 40th anniversary album, have been released in all that time.

Now there is another in which Kahane and the LACO are again playing mostly a supporting role, and a historically significant one at that.  With the demand high for any scrap of tape that might have captured the voice of the late, universally revered mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, the Yarlung label got permission to issue a 2003 performance of J.S. Bach’s Cantata BWV 199 Mein herze schwimmt im Blut. As with virtually everything Lieberson touched, this is a poignant, throbbing, leave-everything-on-the-field performance, the mezzo-soprano perhaps consciously relating the text’s plea for redemption from the pain of the human condition with her own struggles.

There is also a prelude in the form of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 from 2011 in which the LACO (minus Kahane) is permitted to shine on its own – and shine it does in a smart, mobile, graceful performance unbeholden to period-performance orthodoxies. The sound is warm and natural under the live conditions in Royce Hall, but alas, there is only 42 minutes of music on the disc, which would have been short weight even in the LP era.