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Dennis Russell Davies directs a programme of Bartók and Lutosławski with characteristic insight and flair. The conductor laureate of the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra, Davies was from 1995-2006 its chief conductor, and the deep musical understanding established during his tenure is reflected here. “Musique Funèbre”, the first new ECM disc from Davies and the Stuttgarter Kammerorchester in seven years is titled for the Witold Lutosławski composition which opens it, a piece written to commemorate the 10th anniversary of Béla Bartók’s death. The album looks at Bartók’s work through the prism of Lutosławski’s powerful homage, beginning with dark impassioned music of mourning but concluding with the brightly optimistic voices of children – as the Hungarian Radio Children’s Choir sing songs from the Two and Three Part Chorus collections of 1935/6.

The “Funeral Music”, influenced in its overall shape by Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, is frequently instanced as the work that defined Lutosławski’s mature style, a turning point in his artistic development. It established his reputation far beyond the borders of his native Poland, and won him a first prize at the UNESCO competition in Paris in 1959. In his programme note for the music Lutosławski wrote, “This work for strings is dedicated to the memory of Bela Bartók. Musique Funebre is a one-movement work made up of four linked sections: ‘Prologue’, ‘Metamorphosis’, ‘Apogeum’ and ‘Epilogue’. The first is constructed in the form of alternating canons based on a 12-tone row based exclusively on tritones and minor seconds. The ‘Metamorphosis’ builds up to a violent presto, while the ‘Apogeum’, the centre of the work, leads to a central unison by contraction of the pitches used. The final ‘Epilogue’ begins fortissimo, after which the canons reappear until only a solo cello remains.”

Bartók’s influence on Lutosławski cannot be overestimated, “not in his uncompromising intellectual attitude, not in the seriousness with which he came to terms with the musical tendencies of his time, and not in the value he placed upon Bartók’s source studies in folk music”, as Wolfgang Sandner writes in the CD booklet. For Bartók the Hungarian folk heritage was both a musical treasure trove in its own right and, in its modes, its asymmetrical rhythms and metrical shifts, a great source of inspiration for the creation of modern music. The pieces programmed here touch on both aspects.

The Romanian Folk Dances are arrangements of folk melodies Bartók collected on travels through Transylvania. The Two and Three Part Chorus songs, meanwhile are pieces “in the style of folk music” written at the urging of his friend Zoltán Kodály. “Divertimento” was written just before Bartók’s emigration to the USA. “He was probably aware,” Sandner surmises, “that with this work he was not only taking leave of Europe and its traditions. He must have sensed that Europe as he knew it was about to disappear into the darkness of history. Sonata form and rondo as outer movements of the Divertimento, with its evanescent Magyarisms, almost take on an aspect of desperate compositional measures…”

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Dennis Russell Davies’s substantial discography includes 20 albums so far with ECM covering a very broad range. His recordings with the Stuttgarter Kammerorchester include Mozart Piano Concertos with Keith Jarrett, Stravinsky’s Orchestral Works, Giya Kancheli’s “Diplipito”, “Abii ne Viderem” and “Caris Mere”, as well as “Dolorosa” with music of Shostakovich, Schnittke and Vasks. Other recent ECM recordings include Thomas Larcher’s Madhares with the Munich Chamber Orchestra, Till Fellner and Kim Kashkashian, and Alfred’s Schnittke’s Symphony No. 9 with the Dresdner Philharmonie. Davies has been an important contributor to influential recordings by Arvo Pärt including “Tabula rasa”, “Arbos” and “Miserere”. He recently conducted the New York premiere of Arvo Pärt’s “Lamentate”, at Carnegie Hall, together with the 9th symphony of Philip Glass, with the American Composers Orchestra, the orchestra he co-founded with Francis Thorne. Davies is currently chief conductor of the Bruckner Orchestra Linz.

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