• Lutosławski: Orchestral Works III (Chandos, 2012)

Muzyka polska, volume four

Lutosławski: Orchestral Works III
Chandos CHSA 5106 (2012)
Paul Watkins, BBC Symphony Orchestra, cond. Edward Gardner

Little Suite (1950)
• Cello Concerto (1970)
Grave for cello and strings (1981/82)
• Symphony no.2 (1965-67)


The chronological starting point for admirers of the music of Witold Lutosławski is typically his Concerto for Orchestra (1950-54), which was included on the first CD of this Chandos series (CHSA 5082).  Yet tucked away at the start of the 1950s is a modest work which was the forerunner of the Concerto for Orchestra and which demonstrates aspects of Lutosławski’s aesthetic and technique that may also be heard in subsequent pieces, such as those on this fourth CD in the series.

Little Suite

Lutosławski wrote Little Suite (Mała suita) in 1950, initially for chamber orchestra.  The published version, with a fuller orchestration, was premiered by the Warsaw Radio Symphony orchestra under Grzegorz Fitelberg in April 1951.  The brief from Polish Radio had evidently been for a sequence of pieces based on Polish folk music.  At one stage, Lutosławski envisaged five movements, but he settled on four.

Lutosławski drew his main thematic material from folk melodies from the village of Machów in south-east Poland.  In basing Little Suite on national sources, he was following one of the paths recommended by the communist government for connecting to ‘the broad masses’, creating what today might be called ‘people’s music’.  Unlike other Polish composers at the time, Lutosławski had a lightness of touch, an acute ear for orchestral timbre, and an ability to transform his material into something distinctive. Above all, Little Suite provided colour in the otherwise drab world of socialist-realist culture.

The innocent piccolo tune at the start of the first movement masks a subtle layering in the strings, which suddenly burst forth with a strongly accented rhythmic idea that seems to owe much to Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du printemps (a work that had still not been performed in Poland).  The predominant atmosphere of ‘Fife’ (‘Fujarka’), however, is bucolic, as is that of the third movement, ‘Song’ (‘Piosenka’).  The second movement, ‘Hurrah Polka’ (‘Hurra polka’), and the concluding ‘Dance’ (‘Taniec’) are characterised by metric panache and rhythmic energy, which together with ‘the big tune’ in the finale would be writ large a few years later in the Concerto for Orchestra.

Symphony no. 2

The two-movement Second Symphony (1965-67) was Lutosławski’s first large-scale orchestral work since the Concerto for Orchestra and took longer to write than he anticipated.  The premiere in October 1966, by the North German Radio Symphony orchestra under Pierre Boulez, consisted only of the second movement.  Lutosławski himself conducted the finished symphony in Poland nine months later.

Much had happened since the premiere of the Concerto for Orchestra in 1954.  The state’s cultural restrictions, especially for music, had been reduced to such an extent that major avant-garde figures such as Stockhausen and Nono came to Poland in the late 1950s, and Polish composers were exposed to a bewildering yet enticing array of new ideas from the West.  Lutosławski, ever his own man, charted a distinctive path through this thicket of new music and by the mid-1960s he had developed an idiom which was technically flexible and highly expressive.  He was also searching for structural processes that would realise his ideas to their full potential.  In the String Quartet (1964), he experimented with a two-movement form (Introduction – Main) which he expanded in the Second Symphony (‘Hésitant’ – ‘Direct’), paralleling the links between Little Suite and the Concerto for Orchestra.

In the quartet and this symphony, as well as in works such as Livre pour orchestre (1968), Lutosławski showed his main preoccupation to be to create an atmosphere of anticipation, or a lack of fulfilment, in the opening stages of a large-scale form, and then to draw the listener into the ensuing, more purposefully developed music until it reaches a climactic explosion and resolution.

‘Hésitant’ consists of seven episodes, separated by refrains played by different trio combinations of oboes, cor anglais, and bassoons.  While the refrains are generally slow-moving, the episodes are livelier and emphasise other instrumental combinations.  These may be contained within traditional orchestral families, for example the use of brass in the opening episode.  Or they may be for mixed timbres, such as the combination of flutes, tom-toms, and celesta in the second episode. The impression is one of a flurry of different textures, of bundles of instrumental combinations without a unified pulse.  This febrile exploration of moment-to-moment orchestral and harmonic textures deliberately lacks forward momentum, although in the final episode there are fuller textures and rapid-fire exchanges among them.

As the bassoons utter the final notes of ‘Hésitant’, the double-basses enter ppp.  The strings have played a minimal role in the first movement, so the switch to their sustained, yearning lines in the second movement is a clear signal of a change of direction.  What Lutosławski once described as the ‘low pressure’ of the first movement gives way to ‘far denser musical matter’ in the second.  There is also a sense of an increasingly coherent mass movement towards an as yet undefined goal.  The different orchestral families interact ever more frenetically, the expression intensifies, and the tempo of change increases until the strings launch the final and inexorable drive to the climax.

This pulsating ride is galvanised by conventionally metred notation.  It is destined not to reach a triumphant culmination, however, but to disintegrate in a series of ad libitum explosions, which themselves are dealt with by emphatic punctuations on the notes E flat and F.  The subsequent resolution, if that is what it is, returns briefly to the plangent tones of the low strings with which the movement began.

Cello Concerto

Lutosławski searched continually for new ways of exploring traditional genres.  His approach to the concerto was no exception, and in the Cello Concerto (1969-70) he created one of the most original works of recent times.  He was no doubt hugely inspired by its dedicatee, Mstislav Rostropovich, who gave the premiere in London in October 1970, with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra conducted by Edward Downes.

The Cello Concerto is in four movements, played without a break.  The most striking aspect is the configuration of these four movements to realise the dramatic potential that Lutosławski saw in the genre.  He was a frequent playgoer and his love of Greek tragedy may well have lain behind his structural and expressive concept for the concerto.  So might his admiration for Joseph Conrad’s rites of passage in works such as The Shadow-Line.  While Lutosławski insisted that his was a purely musical drama, unconnected with a definable narrative, Rostropovich nevertheless saw the trajectory of the Cello Concerto as mirroring his own battles with the authorities in the Soviet union (and they were very real in the late ’60s and early ’70s).  Try as he might, Lutosławski could not dampen down such extra-musical interpretations, and in private conversations he even gave hints that occasionally he had thought along similar lines.

It would be hard to find another concerto that opens with such a lack of expressivity: repeated open-string D naturals, played piano, at regular one-second intervals, indifferente.  Yet the seeds of the work’s musical drama lie in these deliberately unassuming notes.  This Introduction for the solo cello (it is not a cadenza) pits the D naturals against flights of fancy, ‘frolics’ as Lutosławski called them in his sketches.  Their interlinking is an unportentous pre-echo of the main dramatic thrust of the concerto.

Some four minutes into the Introduction, the idling cellist is silenced by trumpet interventions.  This violent interruption sets off a sequence of four Episodes in which the soloist attempts a dialogue with the orchestral woodwind, percussion, and strings.  Each episode is cut short again by the brass. Lutosławski wanted the initial episodes to have a ‘carefree, cheerful character’, with the third ‘less declamatory, more restless’.  The brass intervention in the fourth episode is itself cut short by a strong pizzicato on the cello, as if the soloist is taking charge with a new and more serious initiative.

The slow movement, Cantilena, is prefaced by a brief recall of the opening D naturals, but it soon reaches a resonant low E natural from which skeins of quartertone lines develop in the orchestral strings.  Here the solo cello is timbrally at home. Its lyrically dolente line leads eventually to full unison with the strings, and together they are emboldened to accelerate towards an anticipated climax.  At this point, the woodwind as well as the brass brutally cut short the strings’ peroration and battle is truly joined.

The Finale places the soloist in a totally aggressive environment.  Faced with the orchestra’s onslaught, the cello first attempts quiet irony, then trades blows before trying to escape a series of piercing assaults from individual sections of the orchestra.  It is eventually battered into submission by a series of chords the regularity and tempo of which recall those of the soloist’s opening D naturals.  The cello collapses in whimpers.  It may be down, but not out, and it rises in ‘angelic triumph’, as the composer once wrote.  It has the last say, the indifferente low Ds now transformed into high A naturals.


Five years after the Cello Concerto, Lutosławski wrote a short piece for solo cello (Sacher Variation) and returned again to the instrument in 1981, when he composed Grave for cello and piano.  He orchestrated it for cello and strings the following year, and in this version it was premiered in August 1982 in Paris by Mischa Maisky, the Polish Chamber Orchestra, and Jerzy Maksymiuk.

Lutosławski was a close friend of the Polish musicologist Stefan Jarociński, who died in 1980.  Jarociński, who in 1967 had compiled the first book of Lutosławski’s interviews and writings, was a noted authority on Debussy, whom Lutosławski regarded as one of his musical forefathers.  In Grave, for the only time in his life (folk- influenced pieces aside), Lutosławski based a work on the music of another composer, and to honour his friend’s memory he chose the opening four notes of Debussy’s opera Pelléas et Mélisande.

Subtitled ‘metamorphoses’, Grave is anything but ponderous. Lutosławski takes Debussy’s motif and transforms it from intense musings into a free-flowing succession of robust and vigorous guises. The work bursts with the sort of rhythmic energy and textural clarity that characterised his music of the early 1950s, but as filtered through the intervening three decades of musical achievement.

© 2012 Adrian Thomas


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