Les Espaces du sommeil
Chantefleurs et Chantefables
Lucy Crowe (soprano)
Toby Spence (tenor)
Christopher Purves (baritone)
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Recorded 29-31 March 2011 in Studio 1, BBC Maida Vale Studios, London
Reviewed by: Mark Valencia
Reviewed: January 2012
CD No: CHANDOS CHAN 10688
Duration: 68 minutes
As part of Chandos’s ongoing series devoted to the music of Witold Lutosławski (1913-94), this cunningly-planned release, expansively recorded yet clear on detail in typical fashion, gathers together the bulk of Lutosławski’s compositions for solo voice and orchestra. As is the case with Benjamin Britten, Lutosławski’s exact contemporary, some of the Polish composer’s finest music was written for such forces. Heard as a single programme the works offer a startling variety of colours and ambition. From as early as 1937 to as late as 1990, the pieces contrast a consistently youthful quality with the two most searching works, Paroles tissées and Les Espaces du sommeil.
It is an astonishing aural leap from the legato lamentation of the early Lacrimosa – a fragment from an unfinished Requiem – to the filigree mystery of Paroles tissées (Woven Words), while an even more striking juxtaposition takes us from the brief and simple Śpijże śpij (Sleep, sleep) to the nocturnal oblivion of Les Espaces du sommeil (The Spaces of Sleep). This poetic meditation was recognised as a masterpiece when it first appeared, in 1975, and placed firmly on the map when two high-profile recordings appeared within months of each other: by John Shirley-Quirk with Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting, the other by dedicatee Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau with the composer. These are big shoes for Christopher Purves and Edward Gardner to fill, yet in their compelling account they yield nothing to their illustrious predecessors.
The subject of Les Espaces du sommeil is crystal-clear, yet the imagery is as elusive as a dream. With its near-abstract text (Robert Desnos wrote the poem from which it is adapted, A la mystérieuse, while he was a disciple of the Surrealist André Breton), it is practically a tone-poem on sleep. It opens hypnotically on two slow iterations of the words “Dans la nuit” (In the night), sung while a curtain of darkness is drawn by the low strings, initiating a sixteen-minute setting that shifts from deep sleep to REM sleep and back again in a musical mood whose staccato flute bursts over sustained string chords irresistibly call to mind ‘Strange Meeting’, the Wilfred Owen setting in Britten’s War Requiem.
More Britten is evoked in Paroles tissées; unsurprisingly so, perhaps, in a work written for his partner, Peter Pears. The parallel this time is with Les Illuminations, although it would be wrong to imply any conscious imitation other than their common deployment of a string-dominated orchestra in setting poetic French extravaganzas. Jean-François Chabrun’s verbal tapestry allows Lutosławski to knead the dream-like repetitions within its four interlocking sections into a form that creates musical coherence out of textual chaos. The music is spare of melody and fragmentary of scoring, yet Toby Spence (singing in flawless French and untroubled even by the trickiest demands) invests the vocal line with flair and conviction.
The remainder of the programme – the lion’s share – is entrusted to Lucy Crowe, whose eloquent soprano is particularly radiant in Silesian Triptych. This rousing showpiece sets Polish love-poems in a style that has immediate appeal. The outer sections are redolent of Hungarians Béla Bartók or Mátyás Seiber in folksong mode, while the central lament to lost love is haunting.
Lutosławski’s 1990 setting of some flora and fauna poems (by Desnos again), Chantefleurs et Chantefables, bring the disc to a spirited close, even if some of the music feels excessively heavy-handed for such light verse. ‘La Véronique’ is particularly overblown, while the busy scoring of ‘Le Papillon’ begs the question: how much noise would 300 million butterflies actually make?