I met Witold Lutoslawski in London in 1987 when he came to the Proms to conduct his Thrid Symphony. I asked him whether he had plans for another: he smiled and replied that he was so busy he couldn’t plan that far ahead. However, he did indeed start work on his Fourth (and last) the following year, and it premiered in 1992. He died the following year, and Radio 3 predictably gave a great deal of airplay to his music, including a work that I had never heard, his Twenty Christmas Carols (begun in 1946 and originally written for soprano and piano).
I was used to the avant-garde leanings of such pieces as Jeux Venitiens, which gave the conductor freedom to stop the player from continuing at any given point, but this was another world, and one that immediately captivated me. In the aftermath of a war that had ravaged his country and killed 6 million of his compatriots, Lutoslawski, at the behest of the Ministry Of Culture, began collecting texts of traditional carols, very much in the manner of Vaughan Williams before him, and organising them into a cycle. The charm of the pieces is heightened by magical orchestration, completed towards the end of the composer’s life. I immediately bought this Naxos CD when it first appeared, and it has become a part of the season for me ever since. The texts (which I have included in English and Polish) give the secondary characters Polish names and embellish the Nativity story in a childlike, timeless way: it would have been balm for Poland’s ravaged soul after the war and again during the upheaval of the 1980s and the victory of Solidarity (which Lutoslawski supported vigorously). The performance is by the Polish Radio Choir and Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Antoni Wit, and the full CD or download is available here.
Lutoslawski, Twenty Polish Christmas Carols