• Lutosławski: Orchestral Works II (Chandos, 2012)

Muzyka polska, volume three

Lutosławski: Orchestral Works II
Chandos CHSA 5098 (2012)
Louis Lortie, BBC Symphony Orchestra, cond. Edward Gardner

• Symphonic Variations (1938)
• Piano Concerto (1988)
• Variations on a Theme of Paganini (1941/1978)
• Symphony no.4 (1992)


This third CD in the Chandos series devoted to the music of the Polish composer Witold Lutosławski (1913-1994) brings together his first surviving orchestral piece and his last symphony, as well as two works for piano and orchestra: an early piece for two pianos, orchestrated almost forty years later, and his last concerto.

Symphonic Variations

Lutosławski began to compose his Symphonic Variations (1936-38) while he was studying with Witold Maliszewski at the Warsaw Conservatory, but without consulting his teacher.  When he did show him the score, Maliszewski replied that he did not understand it, remarking further that ‘For me your work is ugly’.  It is a measure of the conservatism of his teacher and of the musical culture of Warsaw in the late 1930s that the new piece by Lutosławski was thought to be ahead of its time.  Today, it can be seen to fit easily into a European tradition of variation form and into moderate, Central European idioms.

Today’s listener will also detect the influence of early Stravinsky, of pieces such as The Firebird or Petrushka, written a quarter of a century earlier (both ballets were produced in Warsaw in 1922 and Otto Klemperer conducted the latter there in 1934).  Nearer in time and place is Szymanowski’s answer to Stravinsky’s folk ballets, Harnasie (Mountain Robbers) of 1931.

The first half of Lutosławski’s ten-bar theme, played by the flute, unfurls like a folksong, while the second half, on the violins, has a different motif that curls in on itself.  The twenty-five-year-old Lutosławski then shows his talent for lush as well as edgy harmonies and a vivid ear for instrumental colour and virtuosity.

There are seven variations with a coda.  The first variation emerges in a strong Szymanowskian vein, the instrumental layers (oboe, horn, high violins) strongly reminiscent of the opening of Harnasie.  Variations two and three are marked Allegro and reveal a neoclassical impetus.  The fourth variation combines activity with lyricism (horns and violins) while the fifth is spikier and more syncopated.  Variations six and seven form a slower-moving pair in which the flute again takes centre stage, the ghost of Petrushka is not far away (piano), the strings are brought forward, and the Szymanowskian textures reappear.  Lutosławski briefly doffs his musical cap towards the tradition of ending a set of variations with a fugue (woodwind), and the full theme returns triumphant to conclude what is, in effect, a miniature concerto for orchestra.

Variations on a Theme of Paganini

Symphonic Variations was premiered in Kraków on 17 June 1939.  Less than three months later, Poland was invaded by Germany and normal musical life disappeared.  The Poles, ever resourceful, set up musical cafés where not only light music was played but also mainstream repertoire (several complete cycles of Beethoven’s piano sonatas were performed).

Lutosławski made his living in these cafés by playing a repertoire of light music arranged by himself and his piano-duet partner, the composer Andrzej Panufnik.  All but one of these pieces were destroyed during the Warsaw Uprising in 1944.  The sole survivor was his Variations on a Theme of Paganini (1941) for two pianos.  Lutosławski must have been aware of at least some of the previous sets of variations composed on Paganini’s twenty-fourth Caprice for solo violin.  Indeed, it is highly likely that Lutosławski heard Rachmaninoff perform his own Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini in Warsaw in 1936.  Unlike Rachmaninoff and others, however, Lutosławski sticks close to most of Paganini’s original.

In 1978, at the request of the Polish-born pianist Felicja Blumental, Lutosławski arranged the work for piano and orchestra.  She premiered it the following year in Miami.  In this version, each of the eleven variations (apart from the last two) is repeated, the piano and orchestra swapping parts in the second half.  It is a canny move, as it allows the composer to show off his scintillating orchestration and to point up some of the jazzier rhythmic moments (the ninth variation stands out).  Where Paganini supplied the single tempo marking Quasi presto, Lutosławski opens with Allegro capriccioso, drops to Meno mosso for variation two, and further to Poco lento for the dolcissimo sixth variation, resuming fast tempi thereafter.  The piece concludes with a double reprise of the original theme.  What had always been a popular tour de force for two pianists was now a brilliant duet for piano and orchestra.

Piano Concerto

The Piano Concerto (1987-88) was written for the Polish pianist Krystian Zimerman and premiered by him in Salzburg on 19 August 1988, the Austrian Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by the composer.  Preceded by the Cello Concerto, written for Mstislav Rostropovich (1970), the Double Concerto for oboe, harp, and chamber orchestra, written for Heinz and Ursula Holliger (1980), and Chain 2 for violin and orchestra, written for Anne-Sophie Mutter (1985), it was the last of Lutosławski’s concertante works.

Lutosławski was instinctively alert to the dramatic potential in music.  Sometimes, as in the Cello Concerto, it took the form of the theatre of conflict.  The Piano Concerto, on the other hand, emphasises the conversational, the play of forces in the spirit of co-operation.  The four movements run without a break.  He wrote the Piano Concerto several years after having evolved a musical language that was newly melodic and often passionately lyrical, as in his Third Symphony (1983).  The Piano Concerto took this shift a stage further by alluding to the musical idioms of key nineteenth-century composers such as Chopin, Liszt, and Brahms as well as later ‘mentors’, among them Ravel and Bartók, and, perhaps more surprisingly, Rachmaninoff.  Yet this is not typical postmodernism, but rather his way of reintegrating, after a long period of avant-garde individualism, with his own musical past and with musical traditions that had always been close to him.

In his note for the first movement, Lutosławski highlighted the contrasting alternations of ‘nonchalant, light, sometimes rather wayward’ motifs and a typically lyrical ‘broad cantilena’.  For him, the second movement (Presto) was ‘a kind of moto perpetuo, a quick chase by the piano’.  The third movement (Largo) ‘opens with a recitative for the piano alone’, while the finale ‘alludes to the baroque form of the chaconne’.

These brief excerpts indicate some of Lutosławski’s preoccupations since the early 1960s.  One was to begin a work with relatively ephemeral yet interesting material, with the weight of the structure placed on the concluding movement.  Another was to spotlight the soloist alone in unexpected places, as at the start of the Largo.

The finale is perhaps the most intriguing movement.  For the most part, Lutosławski superposes two musical ‘streams’.  The orchestra, as if recollecting the start of the Passacaglia of his Concerto for Orchestra (1954) as well as the length and two-part structure of the theme of the Symphonic Variations, pursues a ten-bar, spasmodic chaconne theme which smoothes out in its final bars.  The piano follows its own head in the variations that follow, disregarding the concurrent progress of the orchestral chaconne sequence.  The two forces, having largely talked over each other (in a manner unlike that of the traditionally co-ordinated Variations on a Theme of Paganini), reach separate climaxes before joining together for a short, exuberant coda.

Symphony No. 4

Lutosławski composed his Fourth Symphony over four years (1988-92) and conducted its premiere performances in Los Angeles, with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, on 5-7 February 1993, just a year before his death.  Tempting though it may be to point to precedents here, there is nothing to suggest that this symphony was intentionally valedictory, even though since the 1960s Lutosławski had enigmatically characterised many of his larger pieces as ‘farewells to the orchestra’.

The opening of the Fourth Symphony, however, does have a dark hue, the tread of low E naturals supporting a resonant harmony and the emergence of an eloquent clarinet melody.  This lyrical unfolding – recognisable from the string cantilena in the first movement of the Piano Concerto – sets the tone for the whole symphony, which plays without a break.  Lutosławski saw the symphony as ‘a kind of introduction and allegro’, calling its two movements ‘ordinary’ and declaring that ‘in the form there are no appreciable innovations’.  Yet the Fourth Symphony is far from ordinary and its form is highly innovative.

The ‘introduction’ alternates its lyrical mode with wind flurries, ending in the kind of sustained build-up and disintegration which in Lutosławski’s earlier scores marked the late main climax, not placed a mere third of the way in, as here.  It is as if the symphony has begun part way through.  Indeed, in significant ways the opening section takes up the lyrical vein that concluded the Third Symphony.

Lutosławski seemed to be posing himself a new challenge.  In the early stages of previous symphonic forms he had developed musical ideas that were deliberately unfulfilled or ‘hesitant’ (to borrow the title of the first movement of the Second Symphony, 1967).  In this way, he created uncertainties that were resolved by a more purposeful drive towards an overwhelming climax near the end.  In the Fourth Symphony, however, a confident lyricism sets the agenda from the start and a gentler, fantasia-like process unfolds to blur any nominal divisions.  If anything, the opening bars make such an impression that the Fourth Symphony might be thought of as front-loaded rather than end-accented.

In this spirit, the second movement slips in almost unannounced and soon explores a new melodic idea, initiating a scherzo-like interplay between instrumental families.  Shortly after the piano has been brought to the fore, Lutosławski’s fondness for purposeful, ‘broad’ cantilenas resurfaces.  The first of these then revisits the first melodic idea of the ‘allegro’ before alighting on a tracery of sparklingly orchestrated polyphony.

A trumpet intervenes (as it did in the ‘introduction’) and sustained lyrical momentum is soon reasserted.  Waves of increasingly fervent lines lead to the climax, which is unusually reserved, especially when compared to that in the ‘introduction’.  Solo violins, distantly counterpointed by the clarinet and pitched percussion, seem to provide an extended and reflective conclusion, recalling the first theme of the movement.  Yet Lutosławski, who was often playful in his later pieces, has another surprise, and this enigmatic work ends with a fast and not-so-serious coda.

© 2012 Adrian Thomas


(repertoire list)

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