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Lutosławski wrote for voice throughout his career, beginning with a substantial amount of the “functional” music he composed for a living in the 1940s and ’50s. (His exploration of Polish folk sources was never reluctant or forced, and he rearranged his 1946 Twenty Polish Christmas Carols 40 years later for soprano, female chorus, and small orchestra and conducted them in concerts.) “I’ve always liked the voice and tried to write for voice more humanly – treating the voice as voice and not as an instrument with keyboard,” he told Richard Dufallo in 1987.

Setting aside arrangements and occasional pieces such as the setting of “The Holly and the Ivy” that he made for a Christmas carol collection in 1985 or the song “Tarantella,” written for an AIDS benefit in 1990 on a text by Hillaire Belloc, Lutosławski’s vocal music after 1960 drew on French Surrealists for texts: Trois Poèmes d’Henri Michaux (1963) for 20-part mixed chorus and an orchestra of winds and percussion; Paroles tissées (1965), settings of poems by Jean-François Chabrun for Peter Pears and the Aldeburgh Festival; Les espaces du sommeil (1975), for Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and the Berlin Philharmonic on a poem by Robert Desnos (and performed on another Lutosławski Centenary concert later this week by baritone Gerald Finley with Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Los Angeles Philharmonic); and Chantefleurs et Chantefables (1990), for soprano and orchestra, also on poems by Desnos.

The Surrealists gave Lutosławski fantastic imagery, of course, but also structural chains and an artistic distance that accommodated his diffidence about the naturalness of singing. He found realistic opera or vocal drama ridiculous. “The only thing that would really fit in my vision of an opera would be something absolutely unreal… that means a fairy tale or Surrealism, absurd, a dream,” he told Dufallo.

Chantefleurs et Chantefables certainly gave him that, with added ingredients of whimsy, humor, and wonder. Desnos (1900-1945) was a protégé of André Breton and wrote prolifically in many genres. Active in the Resistance during World War II, he was arrested by the Nazis and ended up at Theresienstadt (Terezin), where he died of typhoid fever just weeks after the camp was liberated. Before he was arrested, Desnos had sent his publisher 30 “Chantefables à chanter sur n’importe quel air,” which had been written for the children of friends and were published shortly after his death. Another 20 poems were found among his papers and added to the version that was published in 1955 as Chantefables et Chantefleurs, a collection that has remained in print ever since.

Lutosławski’s lightly but wondrously scored settings of nine of Desnos’ poems are alive with vivid pictorial details. Desnos was the Surrealist of dreams and sleep par excellence, and Lutosławski begins with the reverie of “La Belle-de-nuit” (an evening-blooming flower known in English as the four o’clock flower or marvel of Peru) that seems almost a continuation of his earlier Desnos setting, Les espaces du sommeil. “The Grasshopper” leaps sprightly and the little comic scene of “La Véronique” (Veronica, also known in English as speedwell) is again dreamlike, with the kick in its killer last line, “but a bull is just a bull,” left to the contrabassoon.

“L’Eglantine, l’aubépine, et la glycine” (dog rose, hawthorn, and wisteria) is a strophic nonsense scherzo, with a punchy coda on “wham, wham, wham!” “The Tortoise” creeps and lurches chromatically with a quizzical, self-satisfied ponderousness and the gorgeously harmonized perfume of “The Rose” induces sleep with an exquisitely calibrated little fade-out. Night also falls in “The Alligator,” a rhythmically activated dialog scene, and “The Angelica” is a ravishing, rapturous slow movement that Lutosławski encored when he conducted the world premiere at the London Proms in 1991.

The cycle ends with “The Butterfly,” but there is no delicate fluttering here, as 300 million butterflies descend upon Châtillon to drink broth. Lutosławski uses his fullest instrumentation in his characteristic rhythmic ad libitum style to suggest the astounding flurry of this horde, which leaves the people of Châtillon with “no more fat in their broth, but millions of butterflies.”

– John Henken