LUTOSLAWSKI: Symphonies Nos. 2 and 4 – NFM Wroclaw Symphony Orchestra/ Jacek Kaspszyk – CD Accord 161, 50:15 [Distr. by Naxos] ****:

Lutoslawski’s Second Symphony has proved a tough nut for many people to crack. The grouped sonorities of the first movement, connected by little more than woodwinds in the transitory passages, seem to go nowhere, and the composer’s many aleatoric passages throw people off. Well, I can’t blame them, as aleatoric music usually rubs me the wrong way too, but Lutoslawski’s use of it is different than someone like Cage, who made it more of an end than a means to an end. But to really understand this symphony everything in the first movement must be seen as anticipatory of the second. If the first is disorderly, slightly chaotic and anarchic, the second is a primeval call to order; the growling basses that start the movement rise slowly through all the instrumental sections like some vast groaning of an earthly primordial force of nature trying desperately to emerge. What follows is a solid, granite block of sound moving steadily but inevitably towards what—a goal? An apotheosis of some kind? But it never happens—before we even really get to view this beast in the sunlight already it dissipates into nothingness, leaving us to wonder whether it was reality, a façade, or some kind of illusion. This ambiguity is what makes the symphony great.

The Fourth is to Lutoslawski what the “Classical” Symphony was to Prokofiev—a certain lightness of being, humor, and an orderliness that masks itself as a traditional structure fool us into thinking the composer has entered into some sort of internal crisis that allowed this retrospection to take place. But ultimately the joke is on us, as he intelligently and carefully shows us his unique sound-world in a different guise, proving that the basic raw materials of this craft can transform itself into many different idioms.
I cannot think of a better recording of No. 2 than this one. No. 4 has been owned by Esa-Pekka Salonen, the man who traipsed around the world with it to great fanfare back in 1993, and his Sony recording is still a milestone. But this one has much going for it, including state-of-the art sound, and conductor Kaspszyk and orchestra have as much tradition and experience with the work as anyone in the world. Years ago I was enthralled by the composer’s Concerto for Orchestra, but haven’t heard him recently; this CD is a testament to why he is so important, and why even those normally allergic to “modern” music should discover that in the rough of that era there are still many diamonds to be found.

— Steven Ritter