Dennis Russell Davies / Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra

Witold Lutoslawski: Musique funèbre; Béla Bartók: Romanian Folk Dances; Divertimento; Seven Songs

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The Musique funèbre (Funeral Music) title and the graphics for this release, showing a sere landscape against a black sky, might make you think that the emotional content consists of unrelieved gloom. But in fact it's more cheerful than not: the final selections from Bartók's 27 Two- and Three-Part Choruses, BB 111, are sunny songs for children's chorus and orchestra. They make a rather incongruous conclusion, but the music steadily brightens after the titular work by Witold Lutoslawski, and what you really have here is a crack performance that demonstrates Lutoslawski's links to Bartók and offers a nice mix of familiar and unusual Bartók works. Eastern European composers of the 20th century's second half were almost without exception mightily influenced by Bartók, whether they wanted to admit it or not, and fortunately Lutoslawski was one who readily acknowledged his debt. The Musique funèbre, in fact, was a direct tribute, written for the tenth anniversary of Bartók's death and marking the beginning of Lutoslawski's flirtation with twelve-tone music. He nevertheless used the technique in a characteristic way: developing melodies and structures from specific intervals in a way that recalls nothing so much as Bartók's own experiments with folk music. Bartók's Romanian Folk Dances, BB 76, are an ideal counterpoint, lifting the gloom but recognizably related. The common fund of contrapuntal treatments continues in the Divertimento for string orchestra, BB 118, the last work Bartók completed before fleeing to America in 1940. The most popular work on the program, it makes a good bridge between Bartók's late crowd-pleasing style and the rigors of his middle-period works. It is given a performance of awesome precision here by the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra under Dennis Russell Davies, and it's worth the purchase price by itself. With the usual ECM engineers on hand for two separate sessions at the Liederhalle in Stuttgart, the sound is flawlessly consistent in spite of the fact that the sessions took place six years apart. Whether this program was planned organically or came together by chance, it makes a lot of sense in a collection of contemporary Eastern European music.

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