• Lutosławski: Orchestral Works I (Chandos, 2010)

Muzyka polska, volume one

Lutosławski: Orchestral Works
Chandos CHSA 5082 (2010)
BBC Symphony Orchestra, cond. Edward Gardner

• Concerto for Orchestra (1954)
• Symphony no.3 (1983)
• Chain 3 (1986)



In the history of orchestral music in the second half of the twentieth century, the compositions of Witold Lutosławski (1913-1994) maintain a central position. This is partly because his music was shaped by his context as a Polish composer and partly because he strove to be independent of this very context. He saw himself as belonging to the twentieth-century traditions and aesthetics of Bartók, Debussy and Stravinsky, rather than to those of Szymanowski or his younger compatriots such as Górecki or Penderecki. He sought this position by developing a personal musical language – harmonically, rhythmically and structurally – that was rich and varied in its expressive potential. And, as the three works on this CD demonstrate, his orchestral world is both exciting and beguiling.

Concerto for Orchestra

Premiered in Warsaw on 26 November 1954, the Concerto for Orchestra (1950 – 54) was the crowning glory of the post-war decade in Polish music. Its immediate context, however, was anything but glorious. It was written at the height of the stultifying, Soviet-imported cultural dogma known as ‘socialist realism’. Lutosławski commented in 1957 that he ‘went cold just remembering that dreadful experience’, even though this period of artistic restriction and isolation was short-lived in Poland. Nevertheless, Lutosławski was the most successful Polish composer in surmounting the government’s attempts to channel creativity in political directions.

One of the ways in which composers dealt with socialist realism was to use their national folk music. Lutosławski was alone in Poland in seeing symphonic potential in such sources, and even he, in later years, seemed guardedly proud of his achievement in the Concerto for Orchestra. He chose at least eleven folk tunes from the Mazowsze region around Warsaw, collected by the nineteenth-century ethnographer Oskar Kolberg.  The rousing Intrada is the most ingenious: the opening cumulative texture draws on no less than five short melodies, linked by their common metre (3/8) and motivic compatibility. The result is a seamless build-up to the movement’s first climax. His flexible approach and attention to detail enable Lutosławski to change tack and prolong the rhythms of his next melody, where the horn theme has a certain lyrical quality that he would recapture three decades later in the other works on this CD.

The alternation of bucolic and glowering moods in the Intrada is followed by almost Mendelssohnian playfulness in the second movement. Yet even here, in the central section, Lutosławski seems unable to eliminate a grandiose if threatening tone (this is hardly a conventional Arioso): the folk melody is brutally refashioned.

The finale is in two clear sections, a Passacaglia leading to a Toccata and Chorale. They share the same principal folk theme, announced by pizzicato double-basses. The Passacaglia is a compelling set piece in which Lutosławski moves the theme through an increasingly active orchestral texture until it reaches the highest register. The music thus far has been geared towards the Toccata, which is the most developed symphonic section. Here the main theme is joined by a cheeky little folk melody in duple time (low strings).  This followed a short while later by a chorale (oboes and clarinets) with an answering idea (flute), neither of which appears to have any folk origins. The Concerto comes to a rousing conclusion with a series of linked codas. In its passage from darkness to light, it is an allegory of the hope of individual creativity but also a work that acknowledges the precepts of its cultural-political context.

Symphony no.3

Lutosławski wrote the Concerto for Orchestra as a showpiece for the newly re-formed Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra. Three decades later, Lutosławski honoured a long-standing commitment to write a similar work for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, which premiered the Third Symphony (1981-83) on 29 September 1983. It was a measure of how his reputation had grown since the 1950s. While the musical language is radically different, the idea of heading towards a climactic final section is still there. Lutosławski also seemed to be harking back to textures from the 1950s – not just to the Concerto for Orchestra but also to Musique funèbre (Funeral Music) for strings (1954-58) – and to a heightened lyricism which dominates the closing minutes of the work.

Lutosławski marks off the principal divisions of the Third Symphony with a motif of four repeated notes, usually E naturals. Early recurrences of this motif are separated by relaxed motivic ‘bundles’ (as the composer called such textures), in which successive sub-sections of the orchestra overlap each other. The music is discursive rather than directional and allows individual orchestral players to shine. A change in tone comes with multiple repetitions of E natural: the music develops a sometimes halting momentum and a greater sense of the larger ensemble. The developmental string passage about halfway through the symphony, introduced by pizzicato basses, signals the onset of the main symphonic argument, with violins occupying the thematic foreground and unveiling the music’s intense vein of lyricism.

The climax that ensues is inconclusive and the music withdraws into a series of expanding string recitatives, in which Lutosławski’s rediscovered lyricism is given fuller rein and the music seems to regain its sense of purpose. It is only with the deep tolling E naturals of the low strings, harp and piano that lyricism and momentum combine, thrillingly, wind instruments joining in the theme that had been hinted at earlier. A scintillating codetta – symbolising the orchestral virtuosity demanded by Lutosławski – is capped by the four E naturals with which the symphony began.

Chain 3

Chain 3 (1986) was premiered by the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, under the composer’s baton, on 10 December 1986. It is the last of three works, all dating from the mid-1980s, called ‘Chain’, a title that refers to the technique of overlapping music textures that had in fact been part of Lutosławski’s compositional thinking since the early 1950s. Chain 3 shares much of its sound world with the Third Symphony, although on a smaller scale. Here too there are captivating instrumental combinations, skeins of sound, and a developing sense of momentum directed towards the end of the work. In this sense, like the Third Symphony, Chain 3 connects not just to a composer like Debussy but also to Szymanowski, whose innate control of the associative techniques of the fantasia (in works like his First Violin Concerto) is paralleled by Lutosławski’s persuasive and psychologically acute mastery of form and expression.

© 2010 Adrian Thomas


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