• Different and Indifferent

I was not going to write anything today, the anniversary of Witold Lutosławski’s death nineteen years ago.  That evening, I recall going into a BBC studio in London and taking part in a quite substantial (45-minute?) tribute along with John Casken and Charles Bodman Rae.  The following day, I was already scheduled to fly to Warsaw, where I was able to attend Lutosławski’s funeral just over a week later.

I have just experienced, however, a bizarre acoustic phenomenon, courtesy of Polish Radio 2 (counterpart to BBC Radio 3).  It was a live performance from its Witold Lutosławski Studio, as part of the Lańcuch X (Chain 10) festival, of his Cello Concerto.  Nothing strange in that, you might think.  But this was an experimental rethinking by a group of seven Polish musicians in which the orchestral parts were shared between two pianists, two percussionists and two people involved with live electronics, and  the cello soloist Andrzej Bauer.  Bauer has long been a powerful advocate of the Cello Concerto (he performed it under the composer’s baton and his later interpretation on the Naxos label is among the best).  Bauer has also been at the forefront of reinterpreting Lutosławski, notably in his Lutosphere project with the jazz pianist Leszek Możdzer and the DJ m.bunio.s.  Here’s a sample of Lutosphere, based on the theme from the first movement of Lutosławski’s Concerto for Orchestra.


On this occasion, Bauer played the straight man to the other five musicians.  He played the solo part ‘as is’. Borrowing the titles of the two movements from the Second Symphony, the ensemble prefaced the ‘Direct’ Cello Concerto with a ‘Hésitant’ improvisation that excluded the soloist.  This raised all sorts of questions regarding the meaning of the cello’s repeated indifferente D naturals with which the concerto begins.  Instead, here there was a back story, as it were, in the shape of some 25 minutes of largely unrelated material.

‘Hésitant’ began with a sustained D, which disappeared after a few minutes.  In a series of waves, with two main climaxes, the ensemble gathered pace, volume and density, then evaporated, plunged the registral depths and regained the heights some 20 minutes later in cloudbursts of excited activity.  Much of this was treated electronically, along with prepared piano sounds and other percussive effects.  On air, it wasn’t always clear where the boundaries lay between acoustic and electronic sound sources.  The improvisation was imaginative and exploratory.

The soloist’s open repeated Ds emerged from the dying embers of ‘Hésitant’ and ‘Direct’ had begun – four minutes of solo cello.  I was interested to hear how the ‘arrangement’ of the orchestral parts would work.  This had been done by the composer Cezary Duchnowski, who had also prepared the ‘electroacoustic sound layer’.  Sadly, at least over the internet, the experiment failed more than it succeeded.  The main problematical area was how to match the precision and sonic impact of live orchestral instruments.  Maybe it was better in the hall, but the ‘wind’ textures were often muggy and the ‘brass’ timbres consistently feeble.

The trumpet intervention at Fig.1 was anything but the ‘angry’ intervention of Lutosławski’s original.  Subsequent brass interruptions, especially those at the end of the four Episodes, were plain limp, so Lutosławski’s concept of drama through music never properly materialised.  Even the highly expressive coming together of cello and strings for the concluding passage of the Cantilena was timbrally mismatched.  The fiercest interruption of all, at the beginning of the Finale, was without any bite, volume or density whatsoever.  You can imagine, therefore, that there was no real confrontation as the Finale progressed, no rhythmic edge.  I already feared that the hammering orchestral chords at Fig.133 would not do the job of crushing the soloist.  They didn’t even come close.

I wish that I could report otherwise, as I was looking forward to this with great excitement.  As I said, it may have been different in the hall, where the sound diffusion may well have created a much stronger impression of the arrangement.  But it is surely not beyond the bounds of technological potential to reconfigure the orchestral parts – but not necessarily to ape them – so that the cellist has a real sonic opponent, something to play with and against. As it was, he was far more alone than the composer intended.  Whether Lutosławski would have approved of this revised sound-world I’m not sure.  In any event, I think he would have wanted it to have had more ‘orchestral’ impact and immediacy than was evident on air tonight.

4 Responses to • Different and Indifferent

  1. This is an utterly fascinating account! And I’m not tempted by more of the same — the Możdzer I’ve heard is a kind of dire post-serialist re-run of film scores by Preisner and Kaczmarek: cheaply sentimental, lazy and commercial tedium.

    • I’d draw a distinction between tonight’s event and Możdzer’s playing. I love his Chopin improvisations – some of them are downright brilliant. I heard him at the St Magnus festival in 2010 and he was terrific then too. Maybe we’ve been listening to different tracks!

  2. jonathanpowell says:

    NOT post-serialist. That could’ve been at least intriguing. Barraque meets John Williams, anyone? I meant post-minimalist … of course.

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