This Naxos disc, released in 2005, is something of an appendix to the label's long series of Witold Lutoslawski's orchestral works. The three pieces here are not major parts of the Polish composer's output, but Lutoslawski was nonetheless fond of them. Antoni Wit leads the Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra.
NOTE! This is a classical music CD! It is not a general holiday album for people following Polish Christmas traditions, and the low average rating of this CD as I write this review is sadly due only to prior customers not researching what they are buying.
Now, in 1947, Lutoslawski made an arrangement for voice and piano of twenty classic Polish Christmas carols from various 19th century collections of carol melodies. In 1986 he arranged the work again for the much larger forces of soprano solo, female choir and orchestra, and this is the version we hear on this disc. While the first carol is presented in a fairly simple manner not far from its folkloric basis, the set quickly becomes more ambitious. The complex harmonization of the folk material is comparable to the composer's Concerto for Orchestra of the same era. Now, I feel that Lutoslawski's best music was the high modernism of approx. 1960-1980, and so the 20 Polish Christmas Carols don't really call me back, but we still have one of the 20th century's finest writers for orchestra at work here, and there's a wealth of instrumental detail to enjoy.
The 5 Songs on Poems by Kazimiera Illakowicz for 30 solo instruments (1956-57) represent a considerably more mature composer. Turning away from folk inspiration, Lutoslawski now pursued mid-century modernism and introduced his own brand of atonality through the use of 12-tone chords. Far from making his music grey and emotionless, the weird tone clusters mesh well with the expressive features of Illakowicz's poetry. The orchestration of what was originally a piano line is inventive. I love, for example, the use of harp over a woodwind drone in the first song, or the opposition of piano and celesta in the fourth song. Lutoslawski was to make even greater strides in his next work, "Funeral Music".
The disc also contains the "Lacrimosa" for mixed choir and orchestra (1937), the only surviving movement of a Requiem that Lutoslawski worked on in the mid-Thirties. It has the French touch of very early Lutoslawski, though considering it's less than four minutes long, it's essentially a choral fanfare and leaves little lasting impression.
The booklet doesn't contain the sung texts, but there's a link to a PDF on Naxos' site that contains the Polish original and English translation of the Carols, the Latin and English of the Lacrimosa and an English translation of the 5 Songs. Naxos doesn't provide the Polish text of the Illakowicz songs, I assume for copyright reasons.
Again, the music here is fine but very minor in Lutoslawski's total output. Furthermore, the disc is only 54 minutes long and Naxos could have packed another work or two in here, such as one of the fanfares hitherto left out of the label's Lutoslawski collection. Still, I'd recommend the entire Naxos series of Lutoslawski orchestral works to anyone who loves 20th century music, and as this disc here would be an economical further purchase, it's hard not to recommend it.